What to See and What to Skip at Miami Film Festival Gems 2019

Shia LaBeouf based his script for Honey Boy on his traumatic childhood experiences.
Shia LaBeouf based his script for Honey Boy on his traumatic childhood experiences. Amazon Studios
The Miami Film Festival is back with its annual Gems — a weekend of movie premieres showing at the Tower Theater. Perhaps the most anticipated of these screenings is Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, which will open the four-day minifestival Thursday, October 10. But as New Times film critics Juan Antonio Barquin and Hans Morgenstern indicate, Almodóvar will be far from the only star of the weekend screenings: Other notables include directors Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and François Ozon (By the Grace of God), as well as performers such as Shia LaBeouf and Catherine Deneuve. Below, Barquin and Morgenstern guide you through the flicks to either see or skip.
Pain and Glory. There’s a familiarity that comes with being a filmmaker four decades into an illustrious career. One can often become bogged down by the baggage that comes with numerous films with similar themes, the same actors, and a distinct aesthetic that rarely fluctuates. Pedro Almodóvar is undoubtedly one such filmmaker, but his latest, Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory), is yet another reminder that a great filmmaker can do all of those things and still create a gem.

Though many observers have lazily latched onto any notion of autobiography in Pain and Glory, what’s most exciting about Almodóvar’s film is the maturity it reveals. Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a filmmaker reminiscing on the past, prompted by a combination of age and the restoration of a film with a troubled production he made 32 years ago. His newfound appreciation for the film is part of a desire to contextualize much of his life, and the film shifts between Salvador’s relationship with his family as a child and his current age.

The weight in Banderas’ eyes and voice carries the film and highlights yet another interesting (albeit arguably subtler than ever before) performance by an actor who has played everything from a gay Islamic terrorist to a plastic surgeon holding someone hostage. As the film’s title plainly states, it's a story centered on the exhaustion of existence, the routes we take to reduce pain, and the question of whether our greatest moments are worth the struggles to attain those highs.

“Is it a comedy or a drama?” someone asks Salvador in the film, to which he replies, “Uh, I’m not sure.” And to be sure, humor and tragedy are present, along with an approach to nostalgia that feels reminiscent of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. Almodóvar strips down his aesthetic to its barest bones and explores his themes with a calm demeanor that contrasts with the high melodrama that many observers associate with his career.

The colors, sounds, loves, actors (Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, Julieta Serrano, and others), and inspirations (Saul Bass and Federico Fellini, to name a just a couple) are all still present for Salvador, but life itself has lost its luster. Memory and filmmaking — two concepts that overlap often — are his only escape. Pain and Glory, then, is about navigating fiction and nonfiction, of looking to the past as a means of seeking a guiding light in a lonely cavern built out of pain and paintings, resulting in an alluring piece of reflective cinema. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 10. — Juan Antonio Barquin
By the Grace of God. The films of François Ozon are decidedly queer, pulling inspiration from filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Douglas Sirk while diving into everything from mysteries to musicals ranging from the salacious to the satirical. Even his straight-faced dramas, such as Frantz, offer something more — namely, an exploration of identity and grief that feels in line with a number of his works. By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu), then, is something special removed from the type of filmmaking at which Ozon usually excels, but no less empathetic than some of his best.

By the Grace of God
 splits its grand tale about fighting the injustices that an establishment commits and protects into three perspectives, each one guided by a different man who was abused by the same priest decades earlier. Though comparisons to Spotlight are easy to make, Ozon sets aside journalists and focuses on the heroism of the activists and victims who do the work to confront and expose the Church. Told in a calm voice, the story is a scathing accusation against a corrupt entity.

Though it seems like the film could have been directed by anyone, it’s a testament to Ozon’s fascination with relationships and how they’re influenced by internal and external forces that he primarily focuses on the ensemble rather than individual perspectives. This is realistically a film about how these people interact and cope with their trauma, and it’s fascinating to watch this filmmaker, who often trades in sensationalism, turn down his voice to amplify those of sexual assault survivors.

What’s unique about By the Grace of God is how these characters are built, showing the various routes the victims' lives can take. Ozon explores — in a manner that doesn’t feel as half-assed as any number of recent films that claim to do the same — how faith, societal norms, and time can shape the way individuals deal with trauma. Its characters are constantly being challenged spiritually and physically, and the camera does not judge their choices even though audiences might perceive them as wrong. Offering a film like this one after giving the world the sex-soaked psychological thriller The Double Lover (L'Amant Double) only emphasizes Ozon's versatility as a director. 7:45 p.m. Sunday, October 13. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is nothing short of thrilling. It's the kind of film where audiences benefit from not knowing much about it going in, but it's a delight to revisit once you’ve experienced it. The simplest description is this: An unemployed family embeds itself into the life of a wealthy family.

Though the premise might not sound like much, it’s a platform through which Bong is able to explore a number of themes. Much like his other works, Parasite navigates human morality in an interesting way that is not dissimilar to Patricia Highsmith’s stories, particularly those about Tom Ripley (though Hitchcock, who actually adapted Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, would be an apt cinematic parallel). The film offers this kind of exploration of class and the parasitic nature of the rich and the poor on each other through the lens of a mystery. This extends into perceived notions of family and the lengths people go through for themselves and their families.

His cast, grounded by Song Kang-ho and featuring Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-sik, Jang Hye-jin, and Park So-dam, is nothing short of marvelous, navigating the humor present in the script while building suspense. The script, which has its fair share of absurdity and twists blended in, comes to life spectacularly through these performers, gorgeous production design, and Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography. (Anyone who has seen Kyung-pyo’s work on The Wailing, Love Exposure, and Bong’s own Snowpiercer and Mother can attest to his skill).

But it's Bong’s direction that brings all of these moving parts to life. Where his last film, Okja, was full of spectacle with its loud (though charming) performances and wonderful CGI creation, it’s a pleasure to see the filmmaker return to something more parsed down and intimate but no less unique, despite being built upon the bones of what many of Bong Joon-ho’s films have said and done. With Parasite, it’s a joy to watch him navigate everything from heartbreak to horror and goofiness to the grotesque without ever sacrificing a good time or nuance along the way. 8 p.m. Sunday, October 13. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Like some of cinema's most engaging works, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) doesn’t limit itself to cinematic inspiration. It lives and breathes in the world of art, be it the work of Antonio Vivaldi (whose The Four Seasons is featured in the film), the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (which is gorgeously built into the film), or simply the relationship between the painter and subject at its core.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young artist commissioned by the mother (Valeria Golino) of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to paint her daughter’s portrait to garner a marriage proposal. But Héloïse is uninterested in marriage and sabotaged the plans of the last painter, so Marianne must navigate the situation by posing as her companion in order to paint her portrait in secret.

Sciamma builds her tale of romance deliberately, allowing the viewer to sit and watch as these two women get to know each other rather innocuously. The filmmaker goes to great lengths to create a world of isolation and repression in 18th-century France, not only in the dated customs of the era but also in home these women inhabit — a massive, nearly empty house surrounded by cliffs and shores. At the same time, she challenges what the audience might expect from such an environment by literally questioning why all “great art” must be made by men and more subtly offering depictions of drug use, queer romance, and abortion without an ounce of the judgment and scandal that would befall many other directors. It is simply life, and Sciamma knows there’s beauty to be found within a stifling environment.

Portrait's queerness is in its every bone, before and after the love between these two women is openly approached. It’s in the way they gaze at each other (and, by extension, how the camera lovingly gazes at them) and in the way the dialogue between the two is built upon genuine interest in one another’s fears and fantasies. Juxtaposing the process of painting a portrait (and, thus, of getting to know every part of a person) with a budding romance might seem obvious, but the grace with which the filmmaker approaches it is nothing short of brilliant.

However, the film would be nothing without Haenel and Merlant, each one selling the hesitance and slow burn of passion that comes with falling in love. That feeling of uncertainty is as erotic as it is horrifying, and it’s a sentiment that Portrait of a Lady on Fire sincerely and beautifully explores. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, October 12. — Juan Antonio Barquin
The Truth. It’s no stretch to call Catherine Deneuve one of the greatest living French actresses. Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda seems to know as much, and his interest in her as a performer is clear throughout his latest film, The Truth. The film places Deneuve in the role of Fabienne, a star of French cinema who, upon publishing a memoir that’s littered with falsities, must go about dealing with the return of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), who serves as a constant reminder of the half-truths with which she seems rather comfortable existing.

Much of The Truth plays out casually, pleasantly void of the annoying spectacle and shouting matches that many family dramas offer. It’s a trait that will undoubtedly find it labeled as “slight,” but there’s beauty in the way the film depicts a family, and particularly two women, working through their complicated emotions and the ghosts of the past. He complements this strained relationship by placing it alongside a film project Fabienne is involved in, a sci-fi feature titled Memories of My Mother, adapted from the Ken Liu short story of the same name. (The feature is paired with an incredibly rough short film adaptation of the same tale, titled Beautiful Dreamer, whose weaknesses only emphasize the feature film’s strengths at approaching the same themes).

Kore-eda sidesteps anything too on-the-nose with the concept of life imitating art while exploring the rich material it offers, though the film is full of meta commentaries on filmmaking and Deneuve’s career. It’s in the little things like casting Ludivine Sagnier to play a younger version of Fabienne’s character in the film-within-a-film (Sagnier was a younger Deneuve in Christophe Honore’s Beloved), having Fabienne scoff at Brigitte Bardot’s name (the two dated the same director, Roger Vadim), or in noting that she almost worked with Alfred Hitchcock before he died (they were meant to work together on a film, The Short Night, before his death).

This extends to characters noting that there’s a fine line between memory and reality, and The Truth seems fascinated by how these same individuals compartmentalize their lives, trying to serve themselves as best they can. But of course, the greatest pleasure of the film comes in watching Deneuve and Binoche — handed some of their most interesting work in years — interact and challenge each other in a way that occasionally recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, both visually and narratively (though much gentler than the emotional devastation present there). 7:15 p.m. Friday, October 11. — Juan Antonio Barquin
Swallow. Carlo Mirabella-Davis' Swallow is a stark confrontation of what it is for a woman to come out from under the heavy hand of patriarchal culture via a fierce form of revolt. Mirabella-Davis heightens reality through both lens and storytelling to emphasize the metaphor.

Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a new housewife and soon-to-be mother who has lost her autonomy in her new roles. Her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) has found new responsibility at his father’s company, and Hunter is the vessel to hold Richie’s seed that will ensure the company stays within family hands — a man’s ultimate dream but a woman’s nightmare.

Mirabella-Davis, who also wrote the script, doesn’t bother with the detail of what the company is nor even the reality of Hunter’s penchant to discreetly swallow objects like double-A batteries and push pins. This act, a true-life condition called pica, is all she has to make life spontaneous while kept in the gilded, ultra-modern home she keeps catalog-book tidy while Richie’s at the office. This hyper-reality creates affectation, but it also elicits sympathy for an oppressed woman who struggles to find a safe place for her creative feminine force that allows for the gestation of a new human life.

Though he's worked in film for about ten years, Swallow marks Mirabella-Davis’ feature debut. It’s an astutely stylized and beautiful-looking film with a color scheme of pastel blues and primary reds recalling Antonioni’s 1964 film, Red Desert, where a woman slowly loses her mind under the oppression of her husband’s job as an industrialist. The only stumble in the film is when it over-reaches for closure toward the end. Then, a final act by Hunter might disturb some viewers, but it’s a bold move in staying true to Hunter’s desire for freedom. The ultimate sell is the soulful acting of Bennett, who is only beginning to break out into leading roles. Through a tightly composed demeanor and half-lidded eyes lies a quiet torment brimming with angst that speaks to Hunter’s desire to break free — even if it's by means of horrific acts.

Swallow will be followed by a panel discussion with local film critics including New Times’ Juan Antonio Barquin. 4:15 p.m. Saturday, October 12. — Hans Morgenstern
Litus. Spanish director Dani de la Orden's Litus should go over well during its international premiere at Gems. It’s the kind of soapy, talky Spanish-language drama that's guaranteed to satisfy festival attendees. The setup is dramatic enough: Several months after Litus kills himself, a group of his friends gathers at the apartment he shared with Pablo (Álex García). Marcos (Adrián Lastra) has moved in but sleeps on the couch because neither can bear to touch Litus’ room. Litus’ brother Toni (Quim Gutiérrez) has asked Pablo to host a reunion that includes Laia, the deceased's former lover (Belén Cuesta); Pepe (Miquel Fernández), his former musical collaborator who has since found a bit of notoriety; and Su (Marta Nieto), Marcos’ ex who became acquainted with Litus via Marcos. It turns out Toni has letters from Litus for each one, and they are to open them together.

The drama unfolds almost entirely in the dining and living rooms of the Barcelona apartment. Written by de la Orden and co-screenwriter Marta Buchaca, the film gradually ratchets up the dramatic tension after spending a good amount of time developing the six-way dynamic of these characters before Toni reveals the letters. That no character gets lost in the fray is an impressive stunt of writing. The only issue in keeping up is Lastra’s nervous manner of yapping too fast.

Litus seeks to present a deep picture of what it is to grieve someone who commits suicide and the loose ends left behind with the living. The film sometimes devolves into sentiment, but there are some profound moments viewers don’t often see with such singular and in-depth focus on the distinctive shockwaves left by the aftermath of suicide. 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 11. — Hans Morgenstern
Honey Boy. Shia LaBeouf gets bold privilege to manifest some dark shit from his childhood in Alma Har'el's directorial feature debut, Honey Boy. LaBeouf wrote the script based on his experiences as a child actor and plays a version of his father. The film waffles between the years 1995 and 2005. Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe respectively play the young actor Otis at different stages of his life. The focus, however, is on Otis’ troubled relationship with an abusive alcoholic father, James Lort (LaBeouf).

The film dwells on the unfair dynamic between a young son and an oppressive father who sugarcoats his abuse with jokes and play. It’s no irony that Lort calls Otis "Honey Boy" on occasion. The 2005 Otis, in rehab, tries to confront this relationship, and the 1995 Otis struggles to manipulate his per diem and custody to control his father, who responds with brute, physical force to regain control. The child comes to learn that finding lordship over the man who gave him life is a challenge he can never meet.

This conflict plays out over and over again. It’s a harsh thing to observe. That it comes up as often as it does — to the point it feels redundant and dull at times — is a shame. There are some deep revelations about the nuances of acting and channeling a life lived that speak to the great walls that an actor might find him- or herself stuck behind. There’s an immense yearning for sympathy in that. It’s something that comes to life in the vivid performances at the heart of the film and in LaBeouf’s writing.

Any kind of resolution to this difficult relationship — and the fact that the film ends with father and son enjoying a joint — shows there’s not as much resolving it as there is recognizing it. The Chilean cult filmmaker and metaphysical healer Alejandro Jodorowsky would call this "psychomagic." It’s the re-creation of traumatic life experiences in art in order to let them go. It really feels like LaBeouf is working this one powerfully and honestly. He is so impressive as the patriarch that this writer didn’t recognize him until his second scene. If Honey Boy is about manifesting his dad and putting it out there, the film is a success. As Lort tells Otis toward the end of the film: "A seed has to destroy itself to flower." 7 p.m. Saturday, October 12. — Hans Morgenstern

Gems. Thursday, October 10, through Sunday, October 13, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-237-2463. Tickets cost $13 to $16 via
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.
Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.