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.

The real magic of Lemon, though, is the poet in action. He is mesmerizing to watch; his boyish face is pure emotion as he conveys the gripping details of his life's experience. Far from a woe-is-me tale or shock opera, his verse subtly weaves the beauties of existence and the pains of loss, rendering them sometimes indiscernible. Camille Lamb

9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Coral Gables Art Cinema (260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-385-9689; gablescinema.com) and 3:15 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at Regal Cinemas South Beach (1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-6766; regmovies.com). Tickets cost $12. Lemon Andersen and codirector Laura Brownson are scheduled to be present for Q&A sessions following the screenings.

The Strawberry Tree

You can't help but love the subjects of The Strawberry Tree, even from the opening scene. In it, we meet four residents of the Cuban village of Juan Antonio, telling us — or rather, Simone Rapisarda Casanova, the filmmaker through whose vantage point we enter their world — about the devastation that a hurricane wreaked on their former home. The expressions on their faces vacillate from pensive contemplation to uproarious guffaws as they relate the events, sometimes even using a jokey Italian accent. Their laughter is contagious, and so is their wistfulness.

Both of those things carry us through The Strawberry Tree, which after that opening scene transports us back to life in Juan Antonio in 2008, during the weeks leading up to the storm that would wipe out the town. The anticipation of that event weighs heavily throughout the film, even as children onscreen splash happily in a swimming hole or as adults swap playful insults. Only the tiniest wisp of a plot guides us through the scenes: The village prepares for Children's Day festivities, and fishermen weave nets while planning an outing to capitalize on the large number of fish typically found off Cuba's north coast before a big storm. But this documentary feels more like video art, comprised of long, static scenes detailing the tiny tasks that add up to whole lives in the village: a woman grinds coffee with a mortar and pestle; a man fixes a flat tire using a condom and a piece of wire; two villagers slaughter, skin, and butcher a goat. The phrase island time doesn't even begin to describe the pace of this doc; if filmmaking is like sex, The Strawberry Tree is utterly tantric. But knowing these scenes are all that remains of the way of life in Juan Antonio adds the levity necessary to appreciate Casanova's love letter to this lost paradise. Ciara LaVelle

9:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, and 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 5, at Regal Cinemas South Beach. Tickets cost $12.

The Diary of Preston Plummer

Played by Trevor Morgan, known for his childhood roles in The Sixth Sense and The Patriot, The Diary of Preston Plummer's title character is a brilliant loner who has just graduated from an anonymous college with the honor of being one of its most gifted students in history. Estranged from his junkie mother, who appears to be his only living family member, and having made no friends during the entirety of his college years, young Plummer has nobody to celebrate with — until fate puts a dark-haired cutie named Kate (Rumer Willis) in his path. She persuades him to drive her to her parents' hotel on a beautiful Florida island, where he peels the layers off Kate's twisted family mess as he falls in love with the girl.

The cast is composed of B-list celebrities, so Florida is the biggest star. Shots of pretty coastline and tropical birds weave much of the film together, as the sound of lapping waves sometimes drowns out the characters' conversation. It's nice to have a slice of home to look at, especially throughout the film's lagging, overwrought scenes. Most of the dialogue is painfully flat and/or stiltedly delivered. Romantic scenes between the two lovebirds include many exchanges that are clearly meant to be profound personal revelations but instead come across as lame and contrived. And the sex scenes? Bring a book.

Finally, the motif that runs throughout the film — the tendency of things to fall apart — is placed so heavy-handedly you can almost see the red arrows that were probably drawn on the original screenplay. The Diary of Preston Plummer is, admittedly, a work in progress from second-time director Sean Ackerman. But frankly, it has a long way to go. Camille Lamb

7 p.m. Monday, March 5, at the Olympia Theater. Tickets cost $14.

For more films, times, tickets, and other information, visit cultistmiami.com or miamifilmfestival.com.

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