There's a lot of goodwill out there for this year's Miami International Film Festival to succeed, and there's a lot out there this year to see. With 65 features, plus shorts and documentaries -- playing at three theaters -- you would well deserve an Olympian award if you caught them all. New director Nicole Guillemet had promised to tilt heavily toward Spanish-language or Latin-themed productions, and she has delivered. Spain tops this contributors' list, but there are also films from Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Cuba, as well as U.S. films about Hispanic lives. But it's not like China, South Korea, Russia, and happily Poland are ignored -- from the last nation, we will be treated to the latest film from Andrzej Wajda, Zempsta, which includes a role for Roman Polanski. Representing Nuyoricans will be Raising Victor Vargas, while the Dominican hood is the backdrop to Washington Heights. The French will close out the festival with a Juliette Binoche vehicle, Jet Lag, while Spain will get an additional nod when the festival honors director Carlos Saura, whose new film Salomé will also be screened.
The festival opens on Friday night, February 21, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, and continues through Sunday, March 2, with screenings also at the Regal South Beach Cinema and the Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal up in North Miami Beach.
Directed by Emilio Martínez Lázaro; Spain, 2002
The festival opener is a Spanish sex farce that is bound to please some moviegoers and displease others. Those looking for a flyweight romp may come away happy, but those seeking more substantial fare will have to find it elsewhere in the festival's lineup. Like a bazillion other Spanish films before it, Other Side has to do with young, beautiful yuppies who are having relationship problems. Paula (Natalia Verbeke), a knockout blonde, one day calls it quits with her rumpled, curly-haired live-in lover Pedro (Guillermo Toledo), telling him she's in love with another man. Pedro commiserates with his best friend Javier (Ernesto Alterio) and Javier's squeeze, Sonia (the ubiquitous Paz Vega), a knockout brunette.
Soon, of course, it is revealed that Paula's new flame is Javier. Paula wants Javier to call it quits with Sonia, but when Javier can't get up the nerve, Paula is furious. Meanwhile Pedro finds deep solace with Sonia. Sensing something's amiss, Javier suspects Sonia may be shacking up with her lesbian thespian pal Lucia (Nathalie Poza). Meanwhile poor Pedro is beset by Pilar (María Esteve), an incredibly boring chick who fixates on him. In other subplots, the guys' pal Sagaz (Ramón Barea), a windbag cab driver, pontificates about womanizing only to find himself dumped by his long-suffering sweetheart, while Pedro has a brief arrangement with a skinny stoner girl, whose idea of a fun meal is doughnuts and a pitcher of sangria.
Miami International Film Festival
Seen all this before? You have, mostly, and there are mighty few plot twists here that don't turn exactly the way you might expect. David Serrano's script is a commercial construct with tried and true elements -- a farcical story line; bright, colorful settings; and sexy young women who are forever peeling off their clothes with glee. Certainly the energetic cast is the film's strongest element. There's a welcome sense of playfulness throughout the picture -- these actors look like they are having a lot of fun. As Sonia, Vega, who inherited the Spanish sex kitten crown from Penelope Cruz, is an eyeful who happens to offer more acting ability than her predecessor. Verbeke as Paula is another lithesome beauty with some comedic chops. Alterio and Toledo work well as a comedy duo and we might expect to see a sequel to this film featuring the same two actors.
There is one unusual element here: musical numbers that feature various characters singing against a backdrop of energetic but derivative jazz choreography, looking like refried Fosse. The bouncy tunes add some energy but director Emilio Martínez Lázaro fails to capitalize on this potential. His camerawork is far too timid and uninspired. Not only does he seem to have missed twenty years of music videos and Moulin Rouge, he hasn't even discovered Singin' in the Rain. While you will find some sex and maybe some laughs in The Other Side of the Bed, you won't find imaginative moviemaking here. -- Ronald Mangravite
Playing on Friday, February 21, 7:30 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St; 305-374-2444.
Directed by Carles Bosch and Josep María Doménech; Spain, 2002
Miami residents can remember with emotion that incredible summer of 1994. Every night back then, the television news showed thousands of rafts ingeniously fashioned from inner tubes and scraps of wood dotting the seas off South Florida, jammed with human cargo or hauntingly empty. That summer the members of a crew from Spain's Televisió de Catalunya were in Havana; they met seven people about to embark under cover of night to the United States, and began to film their stories. Carles Bosch and Josep María Doménech continued to film the same Cubans for seven years, following them to the Guantanamo refugee camp and then documenting the turns of their lives in the United States. The result is the masterfully executed and sucker-punch-powerful documentary Balseros.
Do not expect a schmaltzy, triumphant American dream story that will track these Cubans from living on rations to contentedly slurping cafecitos at La Carreta. In this insightful film, objective and ultimately disturbing on many levels, the rafters' journey to make a new life in the United States can prove at least as horrifying as their perilous crossing of the Straits.
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The movie's first scenes in Havana find the Cuban protagonists, painfully thin victims of the island's post-Soviet "special period," terminally frustrated and desperate to get out. Guillermo wants to join his wife and daughter, who live in Miami, but cannot get a visa from the U.S. Interests Section. Rafael, who is in search of "a house, a car, and a good woman," is thrown off one raft by a band of delinquents, losing his passage money, before finally embarking on another. Mericys prostitutes herself to "foreigners who aren't my type" to earn the money for materials to build a raft. She will ultimately fail in her attempt to leave the island until later, while the other six all make it by raft alive.
For most of them, Miami is only a stopping point on their way to the United States. Through a Catholic charity organization, they are sent with hand-me-down clothes and a few words of English to Connecticut or Arizona. Another man joins a long-lost friend in New York. It would ruin the film to reveal their fates here. Suffice to say the happiest ending is that of Guillermo, who finds a job at Office Depot and lives with his reunited family in Miami. As the stories of its subjects unfold, Balseros reveals to what extent contemporary Cuban refugees, raised under the revolution, can become a people without a country, unable to move forward or back. And it allows for a revealing look at the relationships maintained between Cubans here and there. But the movie is also a stark reminder of just how difficult and joyless life in these United States can be. This is a tough film that will make you cry, leave you thinking about it for days, and probably cause you to look at some people you see on the streets of Miami a little differently. Balseros of course hits close to home. More important, it's great filmmaking. -- Judy Cantor
Playing on Saturday, February 22, at 10:00 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts; on Saturday, March 1, at 1:30 p.m. at the Regal Cinema South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766.
Directed by Marcelo Piñeyro; Argentina, 2002
Two of the finest actors in current Spanish-language cinema lead the cast of Kamchatka. Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother) and Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens) play a liberal married couple, he an architect, she a college professor, raising a family in 1970s Argentina. Roth, Darín, and the other actors are a pleasure to watch as they create a poignant ensemble piece that feels as intimate as the city of Buenos Aires itself. Kamchatka is worthy for these performances alone, but the story's lack of contextual detail makes it regrettably exclusive. It is a film to be felt deeply by certain generations of Argentineans, while those with little knowledge of the country's contemporary past are likely to leave the theater feeling a bit confused.
Kamchatka opens in 1976, when a military regime grips Argentina and students and professionals start to disappear. Fearing for their lives as their friends go missing, the couple quickly takes their ten-year-old son (the irresistible Matías del Pozo, who also narrates the movie) and his little brother to a borrowed house in the country. Almost all of the subsequent action in the film takes place within the house, as the parents change the family members' names and struggle to continue their lives, and the children must come to terms with leaving their friends and school behind. ("Kamchatka" comes from the game Risk, which they play to pass the time.)
At one point their daily routine is enlivened when they take in an enigmatic university student, also on the run (Tomás Fonzi). As the parents become more desperate, they feel they have no choice but to leave the boys with their grandparents while they continue to struggle for their ideals and their lives.
Director Marcelo Piñeyro (Burnt Money) has written a screenplay full of nuance, richly felt dialogue, and sweet moments. What it lacks is meat, some structure to really bring the events that have created the family's circumstances alive and allow viewers, especially those without prior knowledge, a feel for the time and place. Except for a few television images, one shot of soldiers, and some comments by the characters, there is no mention of the military regime or explanation of what is happening in Argentina, and more important, within the couple's particular circle. While it is implied that some of their friends have disappeared, Piñeyro leaves us wondering why. He never really tells us who these people are and to what extent they are in danger: Why have they felt it so urgent to disappear themselves before being disappeared? As capable artists as Roth and Darín are, there are moments in the film where they seem to be struggling with the hazy nature of this material.
Kamchatka could be seen as an allegory of the tragic period of the "dirty war" that it's set in, as it leaves so many questions unanswered. Nevertheless, with more substantial context, this beautifully acted film would have been a more powerful portrait of its time. -- Judy Cantor
Playing on Saturday, February 22, at 1:00 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.
Directed by Michael Petroni; Australia, 2002
Michael Petroni's directorial debut is a film that is perfect for -- and doomed to -- the film festival circuit. It's stylish and evocative and its two stars, Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter, add glamour and a thorough professionalism. But general audiences will have little patience with its slow pace and dramatic inertia.
Set in Australia, the story follows Dr. Sam Franks, a psychiatrist whose elderly father has just died; he left instructions that he is to be buried, not in Melbourne where they live, but in the small country town where Sam grew up. Sam takes the body back by train, a journey that sparks memories of his boyhood and a tragic romance with young neighbor girl Sylvy. Young Sam took Sylvy, who wore leg braces, to swim in the nearby river where she drowned -- an accident for which he never forgave himself. Amid these memories on the train, Sam suddenly looks up to encounter a beautiful young woman, Ruby.
When the conductor arrives to speak to him about his father's body, Sam leaves his seat briefly. On his return, the woman is gone. After arriving at his destination, Sam goes driving in a rainstorm and spots a young woman on a train trestle, then rescues her from the raging river. It's Ruby, or whoever she is, as she now has amnesia. Sam the shrink takes her back to his childhood home and cares for her, treating her with food, rest, and psychotherapy. Little by little Ruby remembers shreds and patches of memories, but to Sam's amazement, they all seem to be from Sylvy's life.
The film has several appealing aspects. Besides the solid cast, Petroni's direction is thankfully subdued, with a fluid camera style and a rich, saturated color palette. Petroni, who works primarily as a screenwriter, penned this script -- which draws its title from a T.S. Eliot poem -- while still studying at the American Film Institute. It's a thoughtful, literate tale that switches back and forth between the story of Sam and Ruby (played with skill but little chemistry by Pearce and Bonham Carter) and the backstory of young Sam and Sylvy (Lindley Joyner and Brooke Harmon, who bring a lot more heart and soul to their relationship).
The double narrative adds mystery and atmosphere, but the pace is slow and the sonorous Samuel Barber-esque score only emphasizes the lack of dramatic action. This is a film purely about a man's inner conflict, which is notoriously hard to photograph. Much of the Sam/Ruby story consists of wandering about the woods as Ruby keeps stumbling onto the sites of various incidents from Sam's past. And while the resolution brings some closure to Sam's personal struggle, it's neither surprising nor very satisfying. The result is a short feature -- under 100 minutes -- that ought to be half an hour shorter. Some movies don't work because they are adaptations of literature that should have stayed on the page. Till Human Voices Wake Us reverses that trend. This is one film that probably would work better as a short story. -- Ronald Mangravite
Playing on Monday, February 24, at 7:00 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.
Directed by Chus Gutiérrez; Spain, 2002
Poniente was filmed in Almeria, the arid southern Spanish landscape familiar from Sergio Leone westerns. The backdrop for this recent movie is unrelenting sun, sandy soil, and the howling and groan of the wind -- or maybe that's Leone watching Poniente from his grave.
Cardboard characters, a telenovela-esque plot, and DOA dialogue are the culprits of a good idea gone stinking. Poniente ostensibly deals with the ruthless treatment of Moroccan immigrants by native Spaniards, as well as the strife of Spanish farmers in globalized times. Unfortunately the movie mocks such compelling material with a melodramatic screenplay that has the characters spouting "significant" platitudes on these social themes from the opening scene, while the action focuses largely on the main character's quest to get laid.
Poniente's heroine is Lucia (Cuca Escribano), a single mother and schoolteacher, who lives with her young daughter in Madrid. When her father dies, she goes back home and decides to stay and run the family tomato business she has inherited. She is met with opposition from family members who see a better life for her in Madrid. Then there's her wily cousin Miguel (Antonio Dechent), a racist taskmaster (as was her father), who wants the greenhouses for himself. Undaunted, Lucia gets her hands dirty and starts learning the business, often taking time out to stare longingly at a photo of the father of her daughter. Soon she meets Curro (José Coronado), a gold-hearted guy whose goal is to open a fish shack on the beach with a Moroccan friend (Farid Fatmi, the most likable actor in the movie). Curro rips Lucia's clothes off, and they fall madly and immediately in love.
Things tend to happen fast in Poniente, and soon the climax arrives, thankfully, because the dark ending scenes are the best in the movie. In a kind of twisted Andalusian take on Gone With the Wind, Lucia's business suspiciously burns down, the Moroccans and Spaniards violently clash, and the whole town goes to hell. There are few survivors in the wreckage, and even love, surprisingly, does not emerge triumphant. -- Judy Cantor
Playing on Sunday, February 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Regal Cinema South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, 305-674-6766; on Monday, February 24, at 4:00 p.m. at Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal, 3701 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach, 305-949-0064; on Tuesday, February 25, at 7:00 p.m. at Regal Cinema.