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Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in Ema.EXPAND
Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in Ema.
Music Box Films

From Sociopaths to Sincere Storytelling, Miami Film Festival 2020 Offers Several Worthwhile Watches

Miami Dade College's annual Miami Film Festival is returning this week with dozens upon dozens of films from 30 countries. Besides marveling at the gift of cinematic magic, audiences can also enjoy panels with special guests, including Joe Talbot (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Stella Meghie (Everything Everything, The Photograph), and Lulu Wang (The Farewell). In addition to the exciting shorts being featured in MFF's shorts blocks, the multiday gathering is also offering several feature-length films that are well worth checking out. Figuring out exactly what to watch and avoid during the festival — which runs from Friday, March 6, through the Sunday, March 15 — isn't exactly an easy journey, so here's the scoop on four distinctly different features being presented this year.

Ema

Pablo Larraín’s Ema is the most unhinged piece of bisexual cinema since Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Hyperbolic as that statement may sound, the two films share more in common than one might expect, including a penchant for indulging in pulp while critiquing societal standards and the placement of a sociopathic queer blonde at the film's core.

Ema’s opening act is designed to disorient by offering glimpses into the life of a woman the audience doesn't understand. Fights between dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer Gastón (Gael García Bernal) are purposely obscured, only emphasizing the toxicity of their relationship through references to their adopted child, the fire he started, and who's to blame. The perverse way the two lob insults at each other is reminiscent of the vitriolic onslaught shared between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The exchanges are as brutal as they are hilarious.

Larraín’s brand of filmmaking is also in tune with Verhoven’s — each is able to elevate material that might seem trashy at first (Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno’s delicious script wades dangerously close into depraved bisexual tropes) into something far more introspective and critical of the status quo than one would expect. Di Girolamo brings to Ema the same energy Sharon Stone brought to Basic Instinct's Catherine Trammell — sexy, calculating, and unpredictable. She’s a woman constantly in motion, and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s gaze approaches her body as though it’s torn between forces that she has no command over, even as her eyes indicate otherwise.

Though many viewers might consider Ema an unsympathetic figure, watching the deceitful machinations of the story unfold is riveting. Though advertised as a film about a reggaeton dancer, the movie is less interested in dance — only occasionally sliding into music video-inspired editing to show both sound and movement — and more in the freedom that music signifies against the constraints of normalcy. Both the film and the title character exist to burn down the patriarchy, figuratively and literally, handing the audience everything from flamethrowers to queer orgies. Screening at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., #100, Miami; 305-536-5000; silverspot.net/downtown-miami. Actress Mariana Di Girolamo will be in attendance.

Emma Suárez in Una Ventana al Mar.
Emma Suárez in Una Ventana al Mar.
Filmax

Una Ventana al Mar (Window to the Sea)

Emma Suárez is a marvelous actress, always bringing something unique to even the most languid of dramas. Unfortunately, this dynamic holds true in Miguel Ángel Jiménez's Una Ventana al Mar (Window to the Sea), a film that explores the familiar territory of a woman finding fulfillment in the face of aging and sickness.

Jiménez's romantic drama follows Maria (Suárez) as she explores Greece after discovering she has cancer. Having found comfort in the ocean and Stefanos — a local man with whom she has developed a kinship — she stays behind after her friends leave. Much of the film occurs quietly, and what little conflict there is feels too calculated for its own good. Several scenes seem as though they were exhaustively drawn-out solely to signal their importance.

Gorka Gómez Andreu’s photography is aided by the beauty of the location he explores in the film. The setting in Greece offers a perfect contrast to the gloominess of Spain and the overbearing life of worry and sickness that Maria attempts to leave behind. The stylization of Una Ventana al Mar occasionally comes across as self-conscious, though, as if to make up for the gaps in characterization.

Though it has different ambitions than most films about a woman finding herself late in life, Una Ventana al Mar does feel like it’s sorely missing the joie de vivre of something like Under the Tuscan Sun. Suarez’s performance remains wonderfully compelling, though, able to convey every ounce of pain, longing, and joy through her eyes. Despite being hamstrung by the script’s inability to move beyond lethargic dramatics, she elevates the film to something watchable. Screening at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, and 3:45 p.m. Friday, March 13, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., #100, Miami; 305-536-5000; silverspot.net/downtown-miami. Actor Emma Suárez will be in attendance to receive a Career Achievement Tribute and Precious Gem Award at the March 12 screening.

Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in Synchronic.
Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in Synchronic.
Well Go Entertainment

Synchronic

The symbiotic relationship of filmmaking partners Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson has been fascinating to watch. Each of their features offers a smart blend of compelling sci-fi plots and sincere dramatic storytelling. Synchronic, about two paramedics whose lives are disrupted by a designer drug that unintentionally allows the user to time-travel, is as much in sync with the directors' past work as it is at odds with it.

Where films such as Spring and The Endless have integrated their sci-fi and horror elements into the narrative seamlessly, Synchronic tends to overexplain its curious concept and dedicate far too much time to dissecting its form of cause and effect. The notion of a time-travel drug alone is rife with possibility, and the filmmakers take advantage of some fun special effects work to toy with it and indulge in their ambitions. However, the time-travel scenarios that Synchronic presents are surprisingly uninventive and awkwardly handled.

For filmmakers who directed themselves to beautiful effect in The Endless, it’s odd they couldn’t bring more life to their clunky script when working with actors Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie, who are oddly stiff here from beginning to end. Then again, making something compelling is difficult when you’re given on-the-nose dialogue that includes haphazard quotations of Einstein in a loose reference to the film’s time-travel conceit: “People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Synchronic has its charms, though, particularly in seeing what Benson and Moorhead can do when playing with their editing technique. Here, arguably more than ever before, the filmmakers toy with time and how one experiences it in an exciting if messy way. The movie still follows mostly linear storytelling, just as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival does. However, it’s nice to see someone trying to engage with how time is experienced in film by cutting between various scenes at different points in someone’s life. This effect is enhanced by the quasi-omniscient floating camera that follows characters through their experiences. The stylistic flair engages with the special effects uniquely, but it’s difficult to decide if Synchronic’s technical pleasures overcome its narrative faults. Screening at 6:35 p.m. Sunday, March 8, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., #100, Miami; 305-536-5000; silverspot.net/downtown-miami. Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson will be in attendance.

Amy Ryan in Lost Girls.
Amy Ryan in Lost Girls.
Netflix

Lost Girls

Documentarians who slide into the realm of narrative features sometimes succeed but often wind up floundering. Andrew Jarecki's The Jinx and All Good Things are ideal examples; both works are equal parts fascinating and frustrating in how they approach the true-crime subject at the heart of their narratives. Liz Garbus' Lost Girls, her first narrative feature, seems like it would be better suited to the true-crime documentary form.

Based on Robert Kolker's nonfiction book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, Garbus' film primarily follows Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) and her search for her missing daughter, Shannen, a prostitute who advertised her services on Craigslist. Where Kolker's book seeks to humanize the women who were victims of a serial killer lurking in Long Island, Michael Werwie's script barely seems to care about them. This is ultimately unsurprising considering his script for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile barely extended any depth to the women in Ted Bundy's life (despite the movie's posturing that the story was seen from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend).

Garbus tries to make the most of the limitations of the script, eking out a tense atmosphere that makes one invested in Gilbert's journey. Ryan is, thankfully, given more to do here than she is given in many recent films, where she has been relegated to the background. Both she and Garbus do what they can to bring out an actual character instead of just a paper-thin sketch of a troubled mother. Ryan, Lola Kirke (who plays a prostitute who bonds with Gilbert), and Thomasin McKenzie (playing Gilbert's daughter) are all highlights when Lost Girls allows them to simply exist and mourn, quietly dealing with their pain in a compelling way.

These human moments when the film isn't just delivering exposition, lazy mystery, and on-the-nose speeches are genuinely touching. It is a well-intentioned work, determined to highlight something that should be highlighted, but it's impossible not to wonder how much better this story could have been if it were told through the lens of a true-crime documentary. Garbus refrains from leaning into sensationalism, but she does use tricks already familiar to the genre — including everything from a manipulative score and purposeless location shots to local news footage — to try to elevate what's ultimately a work that has no idea what it wants to focus on. Lost Girls works only because of the talented women performing in it. Screening at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 9, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-237-2463; towertheatermiami.com. Actor Amy Ryan will be in attendance to receive a Precious Gem Award.

Miami Dade College's Miami Film Festival. Friday, March 6, through Sunday, March 15, at various locations across Miami-Dade. For info about films, events, and ticket prices, visit miamifilmfestival.com.

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