Miami International Film Festival's Latin love

The Miami International Film Festival, which kicks off Friday, is celebrating its 29th year. It's no longer just a highbrow affair at the Gusman Center downtown, but a ten-day festival showing films selected exclusively for Miami's diverse, culture-hungry audience. The 11 venues hosting the 2012 edition — including the Olympia Theater at the Gusman, Regal Cinemas South Beach, and a handful of arthouses and nontraditional viewing spots such as Wynwood Walls — are expected to draw 70,000 people.

As in the past, this year's fest will boast plenty of Latin culture, from opening-night film Mariachi Gringo, a bi-cultural masterpiece by Tom Gustafson of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, to Spain's biggest box office hit of 2011, Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis (6:15 p.m. Saturday, March 3, and 9:30 p.m. Sun, March 4). Then there's Juan of the Dead (7 p.m. Friday, March 9), a zombie comedy set in Havana that follows in the satirical footsteps of Sean of the Dead. Chinese Take-Away (7 p.m. Saturday, March 10), closing the festival's awards night, doesn't sound like a Spanish-language film, but it tells the story of a Buenos Aires man who takes in a lost Chinese immigrant.

Here, we review a handful of this week's offerings. Mariachi Gringo's world premiere undoubtably has earned the biggest buzz as the festival's first screening, while The Strawberry Tree, with its unique documentary style and Cuban setting, feels like a perfect fit for Miami. The Diary of Preston Plummer, another world premiere, pairs a couple of recognizable Hollywood faces with a setting in our home state. And Lemon, which follows Puerto Rican convict-turned-poet Lemon Andersen's struggle for reformation, is simply a damn fine story.

Mariachi Gringo
Mariachi Gringo

Location Info

Map

Olympia Theater at Gusman Center

174 E. Flagler St.
Miami, FL 33131

Category: Historic Landmarks

Region: Downtown/Overtown

Regal South Beach Stadium 18

1120 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: South Beach

Films will screen daily through March 11. Tickets cost $12 for screenings and $14 for gala showings. For more film fest coverage, visit cultistmiami.com.

Mariachi Gringo

Edward (Shawn Ashmore, of X-Men fame) is a 30-year-old guy who lives with his parents and works a lame job at a postal shop in Greenville, Kansas. Gringo? You betcha. His skin is nearly translucent, his eyes bright blue, and his hair strawberry blond. And he aspires to be in a band. Specifically a Mexican mariachi band.

When Edward gets laid off, he runs to his favorite Mexican restaurant — El Mariachi — to learn how to sing and play mariachi music on his long-neglected guitar. But Alberto (Fernando Becerril), Edward's music teacher and the aging owner of the family-run restaurant, schools Edward in more than Mexican jams. Through the lessons of a song and his own personal biography, he encourages the man-boy to go to Guadalajara to pursue his mariachi destiny.

When our protagonist gathers the will to do so, the real movie begins. Vivid colors, dirt, and oddities (a trunk full of squealing pigs, children peddling figurines from a cardboard box) greet us on the other side of the border. Edward discovers that the Plaza de los Mariachis, the spot Alberto described as ground zero for mariachis looking for gigs, no longer exists. Luckily, a beautiful woman, Lilia (Martha Higareda), who works in her family's Mexican restaurant and speaks magnificent English thanks to her studies at an American university, rescues the young hopeful. Bored with the mundane task of flattening tortillas, she makes it her mission to connect him with the people he needs to meet to make his dreams a reality.

Packed with unexpected plot twists and genuinely soulful performances by a number of actors including Ashmore himself, Mariachi Gringo opens this year's festival with the love-laden treasure of Mexican culture, offering hope to dreamers everywhere. Camille Lamb

7 p.m. Friday, March 2, at the Olympia Theater (174 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-374-2444; gusmancenter.org). Tickets cost $25.

Lemon

Lemon Andersen is a Tony Award-winning poet. He's also a three-time convicted felon. This Russell Simmons and Dandelion Films documentary is a captivating portrait of the man and his struggle between two polarized drives — in his own words, "Love or the money? Money or the love?"

Andersen, a first-generation Puerto Rican-American, grew up in a drug-, crime-, and disease-addled housing project in Brooklyn. After his mother, a heroin addict, succumbed to AIDS, he and his brother Danny turned to crack-slinging and theft to survive.

Later, while serving time at Rikers Island, Lemon (nicknamed for the shocking blond hair he had as a kid) discovered his own passion — and talent — for poetry. After his release, he earned a place in Russell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam, which opened on Broadway in 2002. Andersen bought a Mercedes SUV and a nice new place for his family — his wife Marilyn, also of Puerto Rican descent, and two young girls. Then the show closed, the money stopped, and they ended up back in the projects with Marilyn's family, cramming 13 people into a single-family unit.

The film tracks Andersen's deliberate, determined struggle back to the top as he attempts to take his one-man show, County of Kings, to prominence. Infusing each scene with golden slivers of the man's biting, wrenching, and rhythmic word art, the film plays like the greatest reality show ever. We're introduced to the director of the small theater that breathed life back into Andersen's art, who sacrificed all of his resources — both emotional and financial — to make it possible. We enter Andersen's home, where his rock-solid wife endures every high and low, leaving us to wonder whether the often-self-centered artist sees how crucial a part she plays in his quest to realize his dreams. And we examine Andersen's strained relationship with his older brother — strained not from lack of love, but from the pain of revisiting the darkness of their shared past with a simple look into each others' eyes. The beats of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, among others, and the arrival of Spike Lee on the scene add energy to this engrossing picture.

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