Feast of Film II

The Miami International Film Festival, part two

Valentin

Childhood memories are part of filmmakers' stock in trade, and many a director has based films on them -- Fellini's Amarcord, Boorman's Hope and Glory, and Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, to name but three. Alejandro Agresti's Valentin (2002) continues this tradition with the tale of an owlish, bespectacled eight-year-old boy who lives with his troubled, lonely grandmother in Buenos Aires of 1969. Valentin has no parents, at least functionally. His mother ran off years before for undisclosed reasons, while his father, who drops by to visit sporadically, carries on flings with a series of women. To compensate, Valentin befriends several adults -- Rufo, a Bohemian piano teacher; Leticia, one of his father's ex-girlfriends; and others -- all of whom appear as lonely and isolated as he is.

The kerchief fad is over, but Nicole Kidman carries it 
off in Dogville
The kerchief fad is over, but Nicole Kidman carries it off in Dogville
Valentin doesn't do the decade justice
Valentin doesn't do the decade justice
Bruce Weber's A Letter to True revels in wet 
fur
Bruce Weber's A Letter to True revels in wet fur

Valentin also finds solace in his imaginary world as a budding space traveler: 1969 was the year of the first moon landing, and he's hoping to grow up to be Argentina's first astronaut. The narrative is from the child's perspective -- adults seem to zoom in and out of his life with little explanation, and their personalities seem to shift as the boy learns more about them.

The boy's father (played by Agresti) comes across at first as an upbeat, ebullient charmer, but soon a really nasty streak emerges, which begins to explain why he can't maintain a romantic relationship and perhaps why his marriage fell apart. The focus on character puts considerable demands on the performances, which fortunately are superior here, especially Carmen Maura (whom many will recall from several Pedro Almodóvar films) as the grandmother, whose contradictory persona looms large in the boy's life. Other standouts include Mex Urtizberea as the romantic, geeky Rufo, and especially Julieta Cardinali as Leticia, who develops an unlikely emotional bond with Valentin. Cardinali's stunning looks work against her at first -- when she makes her first entrance in a miniskirt, all legs and long blond hair, you can't help but think "model." But her acting is full of subtext and honesty, and her scenes with Valentin are the film's best.

As Valentin, young Rodrigo Noya offers a sweet, understated charm in his film debut. Agresti's direction is simple and effective, with a gentle sense of humor amid the pathos, but he fails to fully evoke the late 1960s, which is certainly part of the film's potential appeal. The production details -- the battered, shambling apartments, the costuming choices -- create the period, but the story itself doesn't, either as context or backdrop. Except for the astronaut reference and a single, unnecessary church scene that mentions Che Guevara, there's little sense of the era. But Agresti is ably abetted by cinematographer José Luis Cajaraville's fluid camerawork and expressive lens choices, and Paul M. van Bruggen's dreamlike musical score. This film is a nice fit for the festival, a well-crafted reminiscence that probably would disappear in the bruising, harsher world of commercial movie marketing. -- Ronald Mangravite

Valentin screens at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 8, at the Gusman Centre for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St.

A Letter to True

Judging from the past work of superstar photographer and occasional filmmaker Bruce Weber, it's fairly obvious what the man is into. He likes movie stars from bygone eras, jazz singers, model boys in tighty-whities, Americana, and dogs, especially dogs.

Except for the briefs, everything else listed above can be found in Weber's latest film, A Letter to True. Not quite a documentary in the traditional sense, what with all the montages, homages, and varied subjects, the film is more akin to a nonfiction feature. That's an accurate description since you rarely find documentaries with such stunningly rich cinematography. This is the strength of the film and the key ingredient in creating its elegiac tone, as well as conveying nostalgia for Weber's idea of the all-American life.

The film is set up as a letter from Weber to True, one of his five beloved golden retrievers, and actually starts out with Weber narrating as we watch his disembodied hand write. He follows that with scenes of the pack running around his Montauk, New York, beach home, dogs jumping into swimming pools after balls and dogs playing in the waves. Schmaltzy, yes, but before you can sigh "oh brother" at the thought of 75 minutes of canine cuteness and puppy-dog palaver, the film jumps to a montage of British actor Dirk Bogarde, along with old home movies and intimate stories about his life.

From there we jump to a country farm somewhere in the South, where a pack of redneck boys are having wacky fun jumping into water holes and riding donkeys while their mother narrates. Next we're off to Liz Taylor and scenes from her early film, The Courage of Lassie. It's a pastiche, and yes, there are dogs involved in all these stories, but they're not always center frame. And when the film jumps to a profile of Vietnam War photographer Larry Burrows, a theme starts to emerge, connecting all these dots.

The film is really Weber's post-9/11 reminiscences on all that is good about life in America -- family dogs, classic films and their actors, summer days in the sun -- and also his antiwar statement. We hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech before his death and a Rainer Maria Rilke poem read by Julie Christie. And then there's the stellar soundtrack, with songs that run from Doris Day to Thelonious Monk to Phil Ochs to Ry Cooder.

There's a lot to like about the film, besides the scene of a half-naked Cindy Crawford dancing seductively with an old 8mm movie camera. Lovely is the word for it. Weber weaves a tone poem of all that he loves about life and his passion is infectious. Even if you don't have or like dogs, the simple pleasure of living in the moment, cavorting with pets, triggers a nostalgia for the good old days past or present. And with such beautiful photography, a pack of golden retrievers on a sunny day is all it takes, as seen through the lens of Weber. -- John Anderson

A Letter To True screens at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, February 6, at the Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; and at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, at the Cosford Cinema at University of Miami campus.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Charlize Theron has been rightly celebrated for her performance as Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster; the South African-born beauty has already won a Golden Globe for best actress and is likely to win an Oscar for her transformation into a hard-luck hooker who murdered seven of her johns. Only one other woman could better portray the Central Florida prostitute executed in 2002: Wuornos herself. The ticks, nervous energy, and lightning-quick shifts from an eager-to-please smile to the grimace of rage so impressively mastered by Theron are all the more powerful when performed for real. Wuornos's lack of control over the body that so often betrayed her is an indictment against the society that created her.

The fictionalized Monster humanizes Wuornos by showing us imaginary scenes that reveal the wronged woman's motivations and by couching the murders in a tragic love story. She is guilty, but the world made her that way. The presentation of Wuornos in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is at once more direct and more ambiguous. The documentary's directors, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, dedicate even more screen time to sifting through Wuornos's heartbreaking childhood than did their fiction film counterpart, Patty Jenkins. Broomfield tracks down the mother who abandoned her as a child, uncovers sexual abuse by her male relatives, and visits the snow-covered fort where neighborhood boys finished the job of fucking up the young homeless girl.

But the simple cause-and-effect of abuse and aggression gets complicated when the condemned woman speaks for herself. Is Wuornos lying when she tells the camera and the judge that she acted in self-defense? Or is she lying when she admits her guilt? Exactly how many men did she kill and why? Certainly the victim's horrific past played a role in making her into a killer, but the real drama of the documentary lies in Wuornos's struggle to wrest control over the way her story is told. She refuses a final press conference before her execution, preferring instead to grant a last interview to the trusted Broomfield. But when she senses that he is more interested in learning about the murders than her theories about how the police hoped to profit by sharing in the movie rights, she ends the interview abruptly. In our ever more pornographic culture, Wuornos's fight to represent herself is even more urgent than her battle over life and death. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killerscreens at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, and at 9:45 p.m. on Friday, February 6, at the Regal.

Dogville

Damn! Lars von Trier has never been one to go easy on viewers. His films are always challenging in their avant-garde treatment of difficult issues. He adheres to the Dogme95 filmmaking manifesto, eschewing all the pretty Hollywood ploys that doll up reality and deliver devastating destruction with gee-whiz special effects. But Dogville is not just an indictment of Hollywood's artifice. Sure, exposing the sound stage with its fake sets on camera at all times is a clever gimmick. It's also a lot more than that. Dogville is a critique of the rotten U.S. reality that, throughout the so-called American Century, Hollywood has worked so hard to hide.

Not that Dogville is agit-prop or shrill propaganda. To the contrary, von Trier demonstrates just how astute a student of Hollywood he is by turning conventions against themselves. He even uses Hollywood star power, casting Nicole Kidman as the lead. Although she may have been born an Aussie, no one more than Kidman better embodies the star system as it survives today. Equally as convincing as she is in the earnestly realist Cold Mountain, Kidman plays a familiar role as the damsel in distress who takes refuge from deadly mobsters in small-town U.S.A. So deft is von Trier at deploying the oldest of cinematic tricks that the audience is sucked into the plot even as he reveals the narrative's sleight of hand. The director takes us deeper and deeper into American pop truisms until, without quite understanding how we got there, we end up in a very ugly place.

In fact von Trier's critique is so sophisticated and subtly executed that he adds a coda to the film just to make sure we know what we've seen. As the credits roll, the director recurs to alternative expressions of American reality -- by documentary photography and, of all things, David Bowie -- to wrench viewers out of the faraway time and place of the film and connect Dogville's message to the present. Exactly what that message means and what you're supposed to do once you get it will keep you stunned in your seat long after the screen goes blank. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Dogvillescreens at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, February 7, at the Gusman.

The Man Who Copied

The success of last year's critically acclaimed City of Godsuddenly spurred fans to turn their attention to Brazilian cinema. It also raised the bar of expectations for more cinematic feats, and who knows, maybe even a movement out of that land that brought us Sonia Braga. But while the film's director, Fernando Meirelles, made off for Hollywood on the crest of his success, the state of Brazilian film seems to be as healthy as ever with several strong recent releases.

One of those is Jorge Furtado's directorial debut in The Man Who Copied (O Homem Que Copiava), set in a busy working-class neighborhood in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. The film opens with young, mild-mannered Andre (Lazaro Ramos) at a supermarket checkout, choosing which item to take off his bill to keep the total under the $11.50 he has in his pocket. The next scene shows him burning a pile of Brazilian $50 bank notes, intimations of things to come.

But when the film continues in a shop with Andre at the copy machine, making copies all day, you wonder if this is the Brazilian man who wasn't there. Out of boredom, he reads snippets of what he copies, like "Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day: 23rd of April, 1616. They never even met." At night in an apartment he shares with his mother, Andre sits in his room drawing a cartoon he created called One-Eyed Zack and Granny Doctrine. And when he's not doing that, he's spying on his neighbors through binoculars, especially the comely Silvia (Leandra Leal), which develops into a crush and "chance" meetings.

It's all fairly tame stuff, since Andre comes off as harmless and shy, but before you (or Andre) know it, you're pulled into the middle of an intriguing story that includes printing money on a new color copier that arrives at the shop. It's all to get $38, to impress Silvia in a very roundabout way, since being broke and a "photocopier operator" doesn't take him far with the ladies. And as his affections grow, so do his larcenous ambitions.

The film incorporates elements of French cinema like Amelie, with Andre spending a good chunk of the film narrating the story and his life to quick and imaginative shots that make use of his daydreams and cartoons. But it also owes a lot to the films of Guy Ritchie such as Snatch, with its complicated plot of innocents in over their heads. While the story is a little too incredible at times, The Man Who Copied has more heart and charm than those other films because of the stellar acting; the characters are all very believable, including a supporting performance by Andre's friend Cardoso (Pedro Cardoso) that's Roberto Benigni without the caffeine. Like a wagon full of kids pushed downhill, The Man Who Copied is full of surprises and gains a wobbly, fun momentum with each turn. It should also keep the Brazilian cineastes happy for another year. -- John Anderson

The Man Who Copied screens at 9:15 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, at the Regal and at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, at the Tower Theatre, 1508 SW 8th St.

Raging Heart

Forget Sergio Leone. Director Gianluca Sodaro puts the cheese on the spaghetti Western. Raging Heart is a camp bonanza.

Does the plot even matter? There's super-bad tough guy Boe (Francesco Sframeli), who is made a cuckold (horns and all) by his beautiful wife (a sultry Barbara Rizzo) and wreaks revenge upon his entire town. Raging Heart may be a one-trick pony, but it's a good trick and a wild ride. The over-the-top violence and deliberately kitsch performances make the film a riot from beginning to end. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Raging Heart screens at 11:00 p.m. on Friday, February 6, and at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, at the Regal.

Take My Eyes

It's hard to fault Take My Eyes for subject matter. The extensive treatment of violence against women in both fiction films and documentaries from around the world in this festival alone suggests that it is far from being exhausted. Yet the measured pace and apparently foregone conclusions of this Spanish-made film seem more to rehash the topic than to raise new insights or excite new responses. While better than such low points in the genre as the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough, Take My Eyes offers nothing like the bracing electricity of the New Zealand masterpiece Once Were Warriors.

Laia Marull is convincing as the battered wife who, despite it all, still loves her husband. Luis Tosar delivers a solid performance, whose desperate need for affirmation from his wife is expressed in equal parts sensuality and brutality. The movie's strength is in conveying the complexities of these characters as they love and fear each other. The most interesting moments are when the husband, eager to convince his wife to move back home, begins to see a therapist about his violent behavior; he participates in group sessions with a collection of grumpy old men who have a lifetime of experience in beating their wives. The film, like the husband, abandons this development too quickly. While that may be realistic, Take My Eyes switches course just when things were getting interesting. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Take My Eyes screens at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, February 6, at the Gusman.

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