"You know what I love about Miami? Everybody's dirty. And if you want to make any money, you gotta get dirty too."
This line of dialogue, from Jokes Yanes' screenplay to his intense Miami-shot directorial debut Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, may as well be the film's thesis statement. At more than two hours, it's an ambitious first feature, full of hot bodies and dangerous drugs, where disparate characters such as a tow truck driver pilfering valuables from vehicles, some Russian faux-mobsters, and a 15-year-old girl escaping into a hedonistic adult world converge in the Magic City. The movie captures the bright, fast pulse of familiar, lurid metropolis at night.
"I grew up in Miami," Yanes says. "This is turf I know in the most intimate ways, from my first kiss at Hot Wheels skating rink to stomping on South Beach during 'How can I Be Down' weekend. So the important thing to me was to bring this story to life using the type of characters that I've known my whole life, that are really on the grind here."
Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is one of a handful of films shot in Miami or made by Miami directors to screen at the Miami International Film Festival, which kicks off its 30th anniversary run today. In Calloused Hands, an unusually perceptive and sensitive first feature, Miami also provides an indispensable milieu for the action. Based on filmmaker Jesse Quinones' own traumatic childhood experiences, it centers on a young boy named Josh who comes of age under the thumb of an oppressive father figure named Byrd (Andre Royo, from The Wire). A mental and physical abuser, Byrd is the kind of psychopathic monster that can turn on the charm whenever he sees fit.
"I thought Byrd should be three-dimensional, and we spent a lot of time in particular casting that role," Quinones says. "It was important to find an actor who could capture the humor, the light, pathos, as well as the darkness and terror, so at the end of the film, you don't despise him: You understand that he's a flawed human being."
While dealing with Byrd, Josh is also forced into being bar mitzvahed by his grandfather, and the movie's surprising Jewishness is one of the many ways it depicts Miami's multi-ethnic, multi-denominational melting pot.
The documentary Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story is a complete shift in gears, the latest project from Miami-based Brad Bernstein, a veteran writer, director, and native New Yorker. Tomi Ungerer is a French-born, octogenarian illustrator with an astounding resume of work to his unsung credit, from children's books to antiwar posters to controversial erotic drawings. Mixing traditional documentary techniques with inventive animation, Bernstein captures every facet of the complex man, channeling both his despair and wit.
"Everything [Tomi] says is edgy, and you don't know whether to laugh or take a step back," Bernstein says. "I had an inkling he would be special, but when I went to France and met him, he opened the door and we drank four bottles of wine together, and smoked cigarettes all day. At the end of that, he said to me, 'Brad, you are now my favorite Jew from New York.' At that point, I thought, we've got a great film on our hands."
As an added treat, the film offers what Bernstein believes to be the second-to-last public interview with legendary writer Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), recorded nine months before he died.
"I'd heard so many things about him," Bernstein says. "That he's a recluse, he can be difficult, etc - and we got there, and he was the most charming man I'd ever met: warm and inviting, and the seven hours we spent with him that day are etched into my memory."
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Eenie Meenie Miney Moe screens Thursday, March 7, at 6:45 p.m. at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center.