La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon): The festival's opening-night selection is the feel-good tale of a nine-year-old Mexican boy's odyssey to reunite with his mother, who has lived in Los Angeles for four years. The film is part adventure story, part study of the hardships engendered by illegal immigration on both sides of the border. But these halves do not quite add up to a whole, mostly because the social realism feels so rote and the script feels at times like it's been written by a nine-year-old. We get a heartless WASP employer, faceless INS agents, even a reluctant adult travel buddy who comes around to the wisdom and charm of his young companion ("You're nuts kid, you know that?"). Peril is encountered at nearly every turn of the boy's voyage, it's just as quickly averted, and none of it is the least bit convincing. The lead performances — Kate del Castillo as mother Rosario and Adrian Alonso as young Carlitos — are credible, but the actors are as abandoned by the screenplay as their characters are forsaken by society. — Frank Houston February 28 at 7 p.m. Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St, Miami; 305-374-2444.
Invisibles: Oscar winner Javier Bardem gathered five filmmakers, including Isabel Coixet and Wim Wenders, to make these short films about the suffering of some of the poorest people in the world. The segments are set mainly in Latin American and African countries; each sheds light on a particular struggle. Letters to Nora is a film about a surprisingly little-known affliction called Chagas' disease, also referred to as "sudden death disease" because of its swiftness and power. The pathogen, which afflicts primarily poor South Americans, might be susceptible to modern pharmaceuticals, but no one knows, because the big drug companies aren't interested in a market consisting largely of the poor and uneducated. Wenders's Invisible Crimes portrays moving testimony from victims of tribal violence in the Congo. With the subtlest of touches — the interview subjects simply tell their stories, in monologue form, as they periodically vanish and reappear on the screen — the director creates a strong sense of place and a gripping narrative of loss. —Frank Houston February 29 at 4:45 p.m. Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1040.
Miami Noir: The Arthur E. Teele Story: Like the Rakontur team that gave us Cocaine Cowboys, filmmakers Josh Miller and Sam Rega are Miami boys telling one of Miami's best stories: that of former city Commissioner Arthur E. Teele's tragic journey from Washington, D.C.'s political inner circle to death on the floor of the Miami Herald lobby by his own hand. Teele's life needs no embellishment, and Miller and Rega, with the exception of a couple of overwrought dramatizations, are generally pretty good about not providing any. The pace moves quickly, thanks to proficient editing, and the number of interviewees speaks to their journalistic desire to get it right. So, do they? Although the portrait of Teele feels fairly presented, it doesn't go much deeper than the news stories locals already have in their memories, leaving the man himself the same mystery he was before. — P. Scott Cunningham March 1 at 2 p.m. Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1040.
Miami International Film Festival week one
Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel: Holocaust and pornography? Surely those two concepts do not fit together in the same movie title, but incredibly they coexist comfortably and intriguingly in this documentary about the Stalag book phenomenon. With their pulp fiction covers depicting busty, lusty female SS officers torturing Allied soldiers, the paperbacks swept through Israel in the Sixties. Like most porn, the plots were standardized: Stalags inevitably featured soldiers who were imprisoned by sadistic female Nazis who raped and tortured them. The books were written by Israelis who pretended to translate them from English, and the documentary enlists regular citizens, scholars, a writer and publisher, and even Stalag addicts to talk about their appeal. Former Israeli officer Lian Eyal discusses "getting turned on thinking of this gentile German, that I fuck her in the name of the six million." For a generation of Israeli men, the Stalags became the only source of information, however sketchy, about the Holocaust, which was not openly discussed at the time. All of which makes for a fascinating social history of the Holocaust and its reverberation through Israeli society, in ways most viewers would never have expected. — Frank Houston March 1 at 9 p.m. Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766. March 4 at 5 p.m. Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal, 3701 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach; 305-949-0064.
Once upon a Time in the West: If a movie ever begged to be restored, this 1969 Sergio Leone Western fills the bill nicely, with its stunning cinemascope vistas of the West. (Actually it's mostly Italy and Spain, but there is an appearance by the real American West — Monument Valley, John Ford's favorite location.) Unlike Leone's earlier spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More), Once upon a Time in the West was made with a budget big enough to fit its epic aspirations, and looks it, even if he still passed off Italy for Utah. Leone's counterprogramming was as impeccable as his eye, making Charles Bronson a hero and Henry Fonda a villain. The story — about an unlikely duo (played by Bronson and Jason Robards) that comes to the rescue of a recently widowed woman (Claudia Cardinale) whose land is coveted by the approaching railroad — is more suggested than plotted. But Leone is more interested in creating atmosphere and tension, and his attention to details — from the interior of a railroad car to the beads of sweat on a gunman's face — rivals his knack for delivering the big images. The whole thing ought to look gorgeous (even the grime) in this restored version, which is having its U.S. premiere right here in our own sweaty city. — Frank Houston March 2 at 4 p.m. Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St, Miami; 305-374-2444.
Deficit: Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Cristobal, the spoiled son of a wealthy Mexican government official who must slowly come to grips with his father's corruption and the probable erosion of his family's status. Bernal is a magnetic, kinetic actor who gets across the many emotional paradoxes Cristobal faces in this day-in-the-life narrative: showing off his beautiful home to a group of friends even as the bills go unpaid and the infrastructure deteriorates; partying even as he takes phone calls from his parents, who are hiding out in Zurich. The script places too much burden on Bernal; despite a cast numbering more than a dozen, there aren't any other clearly drawn characters. A sort of Upstairs/Downstairs subtext runs throughout the movie, with clear class divisions between the rich kids and Cristobal's servants and handymen, but they never quite erupt. Deficit ultimately is as inscrutable as its name, with little resolution, and — worse — little reason to expect or care about one. — Frank Houston March 2 at 5 p.m. Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1040.
Mutluluk (Bliss): Based on the novel by Zülfü Livaneli, Bliss follows three characters whose destinies become interlocked after one of them is marked for death. Meryem (Özgü Namal) has been raped, but because she will not reveal the perpetrator, her rural Muslim family believes their honor is threatened and they order her cousin Cemal (Murat Han) to murder her in Istanbul. There Cemal and Meryem encounter the rich, disenchanted professor Irfan (Talat Bulut). The cinematography takes full advantage of the varied topography of Turkey, and the camera moves as purposefully as the plot does through Cemal and Meryem's struggle to reposition themselves in the world. No shot is wasted, every angle has meaning, and much like in Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, Irfan's yacht becomes a floating metaphor for something else — in this case, the social complexities of modern-day Turkey. If this film were American, it would crush even a very deserving flick like No Country for Old Men at the Oscars. — P. Scott Cunningham March 2 at 9:45 p.m. and March 7 at 9 p.m. Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766. March 5 at 7:15 p.m. Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal, 3701 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach; 305-949-0064.
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Silhouette City: This documentary attempts to link current Evangelical Christians such as presidential candidate Mike Huckabee with a paramilitary group from the early Eighties called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Unlike last year's Jesus Camp, which followed its participants closely enough to provide real intimacy, there's no central character in Silhouette City to provide a link between past and present, so the film often feels disjointed and, owing to the harsh digital resolution and Tron-era animation, amateurish. But when the camera rolls on the Christian right kingmakers making speeches in Washington, even the most laid-back liberal will begin to cringe, and there is a real journalistic gem lurking toward the end, in the story of how closely the Christian right is tied to the armed services, particularly the Air Force. The connection is only strengthened by the militaristic language displayed in the film by national ministries like Coral Ridge and Teen Mania. If your favorite kind of horror goblin is exemplified by Pat Robertson, you'll get the scare you're looking for. — P. Scott Cunningham March 2 at 9 p.m. Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766. March 4 at 9:15 p.m. Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, Coral Gables; 305-237-3456.
And Along Came Tourists: This quiet film follows Sven (Alexander Fehling), a German twentysomething who does a year of civil service working at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland, an experience he shares with writer-director Robert Thalheim. Perhaps because he knows his subject so well, Thalheim doesn't force the material. Even while bicycling through former death camps, Sven and his love interest, Ania (Barbara Wysocka), somehow find humor; their onscreen chemistry is reminiscent of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday — torrid because of its surprising tenderness. Thalheim, whose theater training has obviously shaped his adept sense of scene, allows the complicated relationship that still exists between Germany and Poland to leak into the plot through the characters themselves, rather through any hand-of-God contrivance, and the result is the opposite of that in most contemporary American cinema: a film that gains steam as it progresses, until it seems unfair that the characters should disappear at the end. We were just starting to get to know them. — P. Scott Cunningham March 3 at 5 p.m. Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1040. March 8 at 9:30 p.m. Regal Cinemas South Beach, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766.
Leave Her to Heaven: Shot in 1945 at the pinnacle of the film noir era, Leave Her to Heaven is a hilariously strange mixture of Technicolor, Sirkian melodrama, and the kind of brutal fatalism mastered by Sam Fuller. Gene Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role as Ellen Harland, a woman driven mad by jealousy. Eight years later, Tierney herself was receiving shock treatments at a mental hospital in Connecticut, so audiences have always wondered how much of it was really acting. By all accounts, Tierney was as intelligent as she was gorgeous, and it's a tragedy (the kind Hollywood is expert at producing) she never regained form after her hospitalization. Modern audiences with a more sophisticated sense of mental illness might snicker at the campier moments (a certain rowboat scene comes to mind), but there's no denying that Tierney's inexhaustible energy permanently locks one's eyes to the screen. It's also worth mentioning you'll probably never have another chance to see a fully restored print of this film on the big screen with 35mm projection, and after adjusting to digital pixilation, you will definitely drink in the vavoom of cinematography's golden age. — P. Scott Cunningham March 3 at 7 p.m. Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami, Coral Gables; 305-237-3456.
Barcelona (a Map): Through a series of conversations among a dying man, his wife, and the three people who are renting out rooms in their apartment, Barcelona (a Map) ekes out a disjointed narrative of incest, loss, and disappointment. The disappointment, however, is yours, for the connections between these characters are as inscrutable as the floor plan of the space in which they're living. The script deals mostly in empty aphorisms, and the hefty backstory has no appreciable effect on the present-day action. Almost as quickly as a woman reveals her brother is actually her son, the information is dismissed with a shoulder shrug. Within another minute, a character is setting a handkerchief on fire with his mind, but not even this phenomenon can get anyone to leave the apartment. The film lays claim to the great tradition of highbrow European cinema, but is actually just a telenovela with better lighting. —P. Scott Cunningham March 4 at 7 p.m. Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-1040.