Feast of Film

The Miami International Film Festival, now over at Miami Dade College, turns yet another leaf

Bon Voyage

Watching Jean-Paul Rappeneau's big World War II drama Bon Voyage is like taking a vivid trip back to the middle of the Twentieth Century. This retro journey is not just because of the detailed Art Deco production design or the Nazis versus Free French storyline. The entire ethos of the film -- its historical sweep, its grand, romantic sensibility and utter lack of postmodern sang-froid -- is so old-fashioned, it's refreshing; Bon Voyage is glorious entertainment.

Set at the onset of the war, Bon Voyage traces the romantic travails of an aspiring novelist, Frederic (Gregori Derangere), who is hopelessly in love with his old amour, narcissistic movie star Viviane Denvers (Isabelle Adjani in perfect casting). Viviane has several men vying for her affections and she manipulates each with exquisite skill. One, though, the backer of her latest film, gets too heavy-handed and he ends up dead in her apartment after -- she says -- an accidental fall. Viviane asks Frederic for help in disposing of the body and like the romantic fool he is, he complies, only to crash the car with the dead man in the trunk. When the man is found to have died from a gunshot, Frederic is sent to prison while Viviane disappears just as war is declared.

Soon the Germans have invaded France and are about to enter Paris. As the population tries to flee, the prisons are opened and Frederic manages to escape with a sardonic prison mate, Raoul (a fine Yvan Attal). The pair hop a train bound for Bordeaux, en route encountering a fleeing nuclear physicist and his young assistant Camille (the lovely Virginie Ledoyen in plain Jane glasses and wool suit), who fear that their top-secret project -- developing an atomic bomb -- will fall into Nazi hands. Raoul takes a shine to Camille and so does Frederic, but he's still obsessed about reuniting with Viviane. Meanwhile in Bordeaux the actress has taken up with Beaufort, the powerful Minister of the Interior (Gerard Depardieu), who plans to help her get out of the country. But when Frederic finds Viviane again, she must help him dodge detection lest her own involvement in the murder be revealed.

While the fate of France -- to resist or to surrender -- is argued among Beaufort and other leaders, a foreign journalist (Peter Coyote) with a sinister secret learns of the professor's nuclear plans. Camille tries to help the physicist flee to England but both are thwarted until Frederic discovers a way to help them; he must choose between doing so and reuniting with Viviane.

Like a classic novel, the complex story line tracks an array of subplots and characters, offering plenty of romance, dramatic twists and turns, and nice doses of humor. Rappeneau, who also co-wrote the screenplay with four other credited writers, manages to keep all the story strands clear while maintaining a crisp pace that never flags, though after successfully driving the story to a nail-biting finale, he adds a long epilogue that almost feels like an alternative happy ending. Rappeneau takes an iconic approach with his stars: Adjani's Viviane is pretty much a sphinxlike cipher, and Depardieu is more impressive in his craggy appearance than in his acting choices. Derangere plays Frederic as a standard lovelorn Pierrot -- you almost expect him to have a tear painted on his cheek -- but he's appealing and dynamic enough to carry the story. The film is blessed with a skilled supporting cast that manages to etch many precise characterizations, often finding humor at surprising moments. In fact it's the non sequiturs and emotional turns, the mélange of high drama, heartache, and comedy, that make Bon Voyage a satisfying throwback to the romantic adventure flicks of the 1940s. -- Ronald Mangravite

Bon Voyage screens at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 30, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St.

Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight

Any one of the dancers depicted by directors Cynthia Newport, Barbara Kopple, and Boris Iván Crespo in their documentary Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight could, all alone, be the subject of a fascinating feature. There's Carlos Acosta, a Havana-born b-boy turned principal with the Royal Ballet of London, who yearns for his family and culture while leading a lonely life in England. Then there's Septime Webre, choreographer and artistic director of the Washington Ballet, who visits his mother's homeland for the first time to present a work at the Ballet Festival in Havana based on his family's memories from exile. Then there's the legendary Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Cuba's first couple of classical dance, who made ballet a revolutionary institution (astonishing archival footage shows tutu-clad members of the National Ballet of Cuba performing for factory workers inside a working factory). Finally there are the dancers the Alonsos trained who have left the company and the country to dance in the United States, including Laura Urgelles of the Washington Ballet and prima ballerina Lorna Feijoó of the Boston Ballet. Newport manages to weave their stories together into a single gripping tale.

Maybe that's because in Dreams of Flight the main character is dance in Cuba itself. The directors, along with editors Deborah Dickson and Richard Hankin, make magnificent use of the movement of ordinary Cubans to switch from scene to scene. A discussion of the positive history of the National Ballet of Cuba is framed by shots of anonymous lovers seducing each other on the Malecón. Later when the discussion turns to the restrictions the dancers feel living on the island, the camera returns to the Malecón to capture frigid poses that telegraph more powerfully than any slogan that the love is gone. Introducing the film's climax, the score from Swan Lake as danced earlier onscreen by Lorna Feijoó now accompanies the spray of the ocean crashing against what Alicia Alonso calls "this little green crocodile of an island" and a pair of unknown dancers practicing salsa turns on a rooftop.

The comparatively static settings of the houses and apartments of the dancers in Europe and the United States -- and the mournful original score composed and performed by Chucho Valdés -- reinforces the heartbreaking paradox that Dreams of Flight implies, without ever needing to make explicit: How can anyone make the choice between the vitality of life and dance in Cuba and the promise of political freedom outside? Why should anyone have to? -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight screens at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3, and at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, at the Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach.

Festivalgoers seeking a quick nip of American indie cinema might want to catch Milwaukee, Minnesota, an offbeat tale of hustlers and scammers set in decidedly nonglamorous Wisconsin in the dead of winter. Mentally challenged Albert Burroughs lives in Milwaukee with his overprotective mother Edna, who worries that he can't make it alone in the world. Albert works a part-time job for a crotchety old bachelor, Mr. McNally, but his real avocation is ice fishing, a hobby that has brought him fame and a hoard of cash in prize money. What's Albert's secret? He puts his ear down to the ice and listens as the fish talk to him. Albert's not-so-secret stash attracts some out-of-town grifters, including a sleazy sister/brother team, Tuey and Hank, and a smarmy salesman, Jerry James, who show up just before Edna dies in a hit-and-run. As Albert struggles to cope with the death of his mother and a new, frightening world of self-reliance, the rival hustlers close in on him.

Allan Mindel, an experienced producer here in his directing debut, delivers a nicely paced, engaging film that's especially effective in evoking a sense of place. This Wisconsin may not be the real one, but it seems real, a frigid, forlorn planet of battered apartments and lonely streets. R.D. Murphy's screenplay suffers somewhat from overly cute dialogue and one or two implausibilities, but the plotting is well structured and the story gets better as it goes along.

Cinematographer Bernd Heinl gives the picture a striking look, especially for an indie, favoring mirrors and reflective surfaces contrasting with the blank whiteness of the ice fishing scenes. All three appear to borrow heavily from classics of the past, referencing everything from Chinatown to The Grifters to Fargo. Production support is excellent here, though the minimalist musical score, heavily influenced by gamelan, has all the charm of a slow-dripping faucet.

Mindel has assembled a strong acting ensemble, anchored by Randy Quaid, thoroughly sleazy as Jerry, the bloated, cunning con man; Bruce Dern as the troubled Mr. McNally; and Debra Monk as Albert's ever-fretful mother. Troy Garity gives an effective, understated performance as Albert, though he's hampered somewhat by his resemblance to both the young Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler, leading to obvious comparisons. (His costuming, which looks a lot like Rain Man, seems to intentionally exploit this.) Alison Folland's Tuey is more erratic, with forced acting in some early scenes, driving home a few of the jokes, before settling down to a more effective naturalism. Holly Woodlawn makes a brief appearance as -- who would have guessed? -- a transvestite.

As cinema there's nothing startling or particularly fresh about this film, which keeps to the indie status quo of small-time crooks and visual style over substance. This film establishes a world of greed and selfishness but doesn't go anywhere with these subjects. Milwaukee, Minnesota doesn't have much to say, but nowadays what American indie does? -- Ronald Mangravite

Milwaukee, Minnesota screens at 9:45 p.m. on Sunday, February 1, at the Regal South Beach; at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, February 2, at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus; and at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, back at the Regal.

Travellers & Magicians

Most movies, when it comes down to it, are probably motivated by a search for "cool girls"; certainly that's the quest that sets off the first feature film ever made in the tiny Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan. The followup to director and writer Khyentse Norbu's 1999 debut The Cup -- a look at the love of World Cup soccer among a community of exiled Tibetan monks in northern India -- Travellers & Magicians explores more carnal obsessions. The film offers views of a breathtaking landscape much lovelier than any of the scantily clad women whose posters hang on the bedroom wall of protagonist Dondup. Yet the frustrated young bureaucrat is sure all his dreams of hot chicks and rock and roll await him in the United States. So he plots his escape.

Dondup, played by dashing reporter for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service Tshewang Dendup, is prevented from catching his bus to the big city and then on to America by a series of village rituals that include dancing with an enormous phallus. Forced to continue on foot, he attempts to hitch into the city in the unwanted company of an apple-seller and a mischievous monk. The monotony of the trek is offset by a Buddhist fable the monk tells to pass the time about another young dreamer who left his home in search of a land of beautiful women. Magician-in-training Tashi (played by BBC producer Lhakpa Dorji) loses his way in a claustrophobic dreamscape and is reluctantly taken in by a cranky old farmer who has sequestered his beautiful young wife far from civilization.

Norbu's treatment of the treacherous love affair that ensues rivals the sensuality of anything Dondup could hope to find in Hollywood: Bathing outdoors in a tin tub in the winter never looked so enticing. Although the director is also a busy Buddhist lama, who like his cast makes movies only in his spare time, the pacing and passion depicted here prove he is a fully developed filmmaker. Audiences can look forward to seeing a great deal more of Bhutan. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Travellers & Magicians screens at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 31, at the Gusman.

The Middle of the World

There's nothing like a good road movie for scenic vistas, vicarious adventures, and grand character arcs where life's lessons are revealed along the way. Two hours in a theater for the price of a tank of gas and you can avoid all the hassles.

And there's a host of road movies more than worthy of going along for the ride: Easy Rider, Lost in America, or anything by Jim Jarmusch. In the category of world cinema, one of the best road flicks to come along in recent years has been Central Station, a film from Brazil that followed the travels of an older woman and a recently orphaned boy as they made their way from Rio de Janeiro to a small town.

Now comes another road movie to show off the starkly beautiful landscape of Brazil in first-time director Vicente Amorim's The Middle of the World (O Caminho das Nuvens). The film starts out with Johnny Depp look-alike Romao (Wagner Moura) and his wife Rose (Claudia Abreu) standing in the middle of nowhere contemplating a roadside sign that reads "Middle of the World Square." It's a whimsical beginning, and with the film being about a family of seven bicycling their way 2000 miles to Rio de Janeiro, you'd expect this kind of magical realism to hang over the entire story. Especially with Romao declaring his faith in his patron saint, Father Cicero, as enough to get them all to Rio and him a job with a decent salary.

But before we can settle into a dialogue where the characters actually reveal something about themselves, the camera cuts to the couple's infant son sitting in the middle of the road with an eighteen-wheeler bearing down, and lots of shaky camera shots and fast action cuts. Which is a lot of what we get for the next 85 minutes, an abundance of clever camera tricks and not much character development. Except for the oldest boy, the kids are no more than cute props, and the parents seem a little oblivious, lacking gravitas as to their mission even though you're told the film is based on a true story.

What holds the film together is the coming-of-age story of the fourteen-year-old eldest son, Antonio (Ravi Ramos Lacerda). He has the most screen time, and though he doesn't say much, he's still able to convey the pain and frustration of adolescence and the struggle to become a man in his father's eyes. Antonio tries to smoke a cigarette with his father but hacks painfully, is too shy to flirt with the girls he's suddenly interested in, and is getting lippy with his parents like a teenager in any culture. It's not just teen angst he's dealing with, however, but his desire for independence in the face of the real world which he's very quickly forced to join. And what better way for a young man to discover the charms and dangers of the world than on the road? -- John Anderson

The Middle of the World screens at 7:00 p.m. Monday, February 2, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW 8th St, and at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, at the Regal South Beach Cinema.

I'm Not Scared

Italian cinema seems so interested in stories about or with children, you'd think there was some kind of national mandate. Or perhaps it's just wish fulfillment: Italians dote on children, yet the current birth rate is Europe's second lowest (1.2 per couple, edged out only by Spain's 1.1). Whatever the reason, a significant portion of the Italian films that manage to make it to this country feature children as central characters.

That's the case with Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared), a crime thriller that's told from a child's viewpoint. Gabriele Salvatores's tale centers on a young boy, Michele, who lives in a poor, rural region of southern Italy in the 1970s and spends his days hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood. One day the kids are out playing in the fields when Michele comes upon an abandoned farmstead. There he discovers a filthy, naked boy hidden in a hole in the ground. The discovery frightens Michele and he doesn't speak to his rough, dismissive parents about it. Instead he sneaks back repeatedly to give the boy food and water. Little by little, Michele comes to realize what's going on and that both are in grave danger if their new friendship is discovered.

Salvatores, best known here for his romantic comedy Mediterraneo, is having a go at a fact-based crime tale. I'm Not Scared references the spate of high-profile kidnappings in Italy during the time period. But Salvatores does not appear to have made up his mind what kind of film he wants. The story uses a conventional thriller structure, with shocking surprises and plot twists, but stylistically it careens between a realistic crimer and an idyllic, pastoral children's story.

The sun-drenched landscape is framed in wide, golden-hued shots with plenty of dreamy, floating camerawork, plus a narrative focus on Michele and his childlike perception of what's going on. The film is filled with all sorts of creatures -- birds, bugs, lizards, snakes, frogs -- that flutter and slither along in scene after scene to create a surreal, somewhat menacing atmosphere among all the bucolia. But at the same time, the film wants to create a standard crime drama, showing a low-level gang's desperate plot falling apart as a police manhunt looms nearer and nearer: It's Stand By Me meets Blue Velvet meets La Scorta.

The acting tends toward soap opera, with Aitana Sanchez-Gijon and Dino Abbrescia too pretty by half as Michele's poverty-stricken parents. Both look like movie stars playing peasants and neither offers much insight into their characters. Certainly the story -- which pits the poor Italian South against the wealthy North -- has the potential to examine a number of social and ethical issues. But Salvatores doesn't appear to be interested in exploration. He's more into impact: I'm Not Scared often uses a heavy-handed "you will feel this emotion right now" style. In fact the entire film is keyed more for melodrama than dramatic insight and the operatic deus ex machina finale is decidedly less than gripping. The title pretty much says it all. -- Ronald Mangravite

I'm Not Scared screens at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, at the Gusman.

Habana Suite

Habana Suite is practically a wordless documentary; there are no extensive interviews, no talking heads, no grand explanations for momentous events. Instead director Fernando Pérez follows a group of ordinary citizens of the Cuban capital over the course of one day, which begins and ends at 6:00 a.m. In a kind of visual poetry, scenes shift from a laborer pounding a railroad tie to a ten-year-old boy with Down syndrome struggling to button his shirt, to a retired woman in her seventies on the street selling rolled-up paper cones filled with peanuts. Pérez achieves his goal of communicating his real-life characters' moments of personal reflection through images alone. Cinematographer Raúl Pérez Ureta makes each moment appear spontaneous, while careful editing by Julia Yip allows life's ordinary dramas to build up over the course of the day: A doctor bids goodbye to his brother, who leaves for the United States; the elderly peanut seller works late into the night preparing her paper cones; the little boy's father lovingly bathes him, then puts him to bed with a shadow-puppet play.

Pérez's last feature, Life is to Whistle, ignited a small controversy when shown at the Miami International Film Festival in 2000 as a film-made-under-Castro -- despite the fact that it offered a decidedly critical view of life on the island. Rather than the disappointment and dashed dreams of Life is to Whistle, Habana Suite is permeated in equal parts by humanity and exhaustion. Wandering from character to character and mundane scene to mundane scene, the camera eye sees the city as a composite hero -- like Eisenstein without the excitement or that Soviet director's long-gone sense of historical progress. All that's left, it seems, of grand socialist dreams are bittersweet moments of personal triumph, failure, or simple survival. From those moments Pérez makes a moving cinematic symphony. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Habana Suite screens at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, at the Gusman.

Silver Wings and Civil Rights: The Fight to Fly

It never seems to fail. At every anniversary of D-Day, V-Day, or Pearl Harbor, we're treated to a round of reminiscences on the "greatest generation" with a flurry of books, films, and news specials. Some of it is interesting, a lot of it rehashed, but the tales from the people who were there, now old men and women, are always the most potent and compelling.

And for a time several years ago, led by Tom Brokaw's constant elegizing with his news programs and book The Greatest Generation, those alive from 1941-45 were saluted as a people from an era beyond reproach. But these were troubling times in this country, particularly for minorities, with only the war to divert people's attention. Those of Japanese descent, including women and children, were rounded up into internment camps and Jim Crow laws were alive and well throughout the South.

With the documentary Silver Wings and Civil Rights: The Fight to Fly, by director and Miami native Jon Timothy Anderson, we're reminded that the 1940s in the pre-civil rights U.S. were not the "good ol' days" people like Brokaw would like to believe. The film tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen -- the first black pilots in the armed forces -- from the inception of the "experimental" program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1939 through the end of the war.

It's a mostly chronological account with the typical archival film and still photos, newsreels from the period like one titled Negro Pilots, convincing reenactments that could easily be mistaken for actual footage, and lots of talking heads. Anderson has rounded up more than two dozen former pilots and servicemen who went through the Tuskegee program, or were part of the black air squadrons in Europe.

But while most World War II testimonials eventually get around to emotional retellings of some personally harrowing event, you won't find many such war stories here. First, for pilots there's no blood and gore to recount when you're alone in a plane. Mostly, though, the fight for these men was not so much in Europe against the Luftwaffe, but in strictly segregated military bases stateside. Racism was rampant through the military at that time, from the generals down, and black officers were denied things like access to the bases' officers clubs. The issue came to a head when German prisoners of war, held at military bases throughout the U.S., had access to areas that were off-limits to black officers. Called the Freeman Filed Mutiny, 101 black officers stood up to the base policies, risking court-martial and death. Their defiance eventually led President Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.

While Silver Wings and Civil Rights is not as gripping as other war documentaries and their tales of death and destruction, there's a different kind of bravery in the stories from these men in the face of racist policies. And though there are too many talking heads and not enough archived footage, this is an important story that's told well, and a counterweight to all the paeans about the greatest generation that proliferate at every anniversary. -- John Anderson

Silver Wings and Civil Rightsscreens at Regal South Beach Cinema at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 1, and 7:15 p.m. on Friday, February 6.

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