What to See and What to Skip at Miami Film Festival Gems 2018

Carey Mulligan stars in Wildlife.
Carey Mulligan stars in Wildlife. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Miami Dade College's Miami Film Festival is back with its annual Gems event of weekend movie premieres at the Tower Theater in Little Havana. This year's edition will screen several movies likely to become Best Foreign Language Film contenders at next year's Academy Awards. Here, New Times film critics Juan Antonio Barquin and Hans Morgenstern guide you through picks from an array of continents, including Europe, South America, and Asia, to either see or skip.

Birds of Passage. If you've ever wondered about the real story behind the marijuana growers who kicked the illegal drug trade out of Colombia, Birds of Passage is your film. Beginning in 1968 with a scheme to make quick money for a dowry among indigenous tribes, this crime drama is a Shakespearean rumination on greed and how it can tear families apart. Sectioned into five "cantos," from humble beginnings to rise and fall, the film has an epic quality akin to the Godfather movies.

Birds of Passage has an epic quality akin to the Godfather movies.

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Ciro Guerra, whose Embrace of the Serpent in 2016 was the first Oscar-nominated movie from Colombia, codirects with longtime producer Cristina Gallego on the film, based on a script by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Whereas his previous film, shot in black-and-white, was a surreal, elliptical rumination on the destruction of ancient Amazonian wisdom by colonialists, Birds of Passage follows in brilliantly realized color a straight narrative where action and consequence smack into each other like rows of falling dominoes.

At the center is Rapayet (José Acosta), whose scheme to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes) goes so well that his partner in crime, Moises (Jhon Narváez), makes a connection with a "gringo" for repeat business. From Zaida's ruthless mother (Carmiña Martínez) to her spoiled younger brother Leonidas (Gredier Meza) to Rapayet's increasingly arrogant marijuana-growing cousin, egos clash in violent, disturbing ways. 7:15 p.m. Thursday, October 11. Codirector Cristina Gallego will attend the screening. — Hans Morgenstern

Burning. After eight years, South Korea's Lee Chang-dong returns to filmmaking with a powerful, enigmatic work loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. To appreciate Burning, one must be open to the vague possibilities presented by the writing and editing of this bold movie. Seeming plot holes in narratives can sometimes hold more meaning to the viewer who wonders what truths lie hidden in the gaps.

After reconnecting in adulthood, the film's protagonist, Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), falls for Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), a young woman he teased in the farming town where they grew up as neighbors. Though she has become slender and attractive, he's not into her for only her looks. She manipulates his conscience by recalling experiences that traumatized her as a child but which he can't remember.

Burning also includes a stunning performance by Steven Yeun, who starred in several seasons of the TV series The Walking Dead. The film sees Yeun in a more mysterious, possibly sinister role as a Porsche-driving rich dude who casually covets Haemi. What happens among this trio of young people will be up for debate, but that's the point. With elliptical editing and a steady pace, the film unfolds in a way where the more you seem to learn about these people, the less you really know about them. It all culminates in a shocking ending that will inspire reconsideration of everything that came before it. 12:30 p.m. Saturday, October 13. The screening will be followed by a critics' panel discussion with Hans Morgenstern, Juan Barquin, and others. — Hans Morgenstern

Cold War. Pawel Pawlikowski, whose movie Ida won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015, has returned with a much lighter but no less weighted film, Cold War. Zula (Joanna Kulig) uses her feminine wiles to awaken feelings of attraction in her older music teacher, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their passionate relationship is continually hampered by a variety of snafus in postwar, communist Poland.

Shot in black-and-white film with the vintage 4:3 aspect ratio, Cold War nonetheless possesses a verve and humor that only sporadically spiced up his previous, gloomier film. From the appearance of musical sequences to the vintage blue tint of the image, the film has an almost pastiche quality that engages throughout. Characters also sometimes directly look into the camera, adding intimacy to the proceedings.

As the decades pass from 1949 to the mid-'60s, the couple's story is presented in an episodic structure, featuring cuts to black and often startling follow-up scenes that commence with musicians in the climax of their performances. The mise en scène is also rich, from the ramshackle sweatiness of a Paris jazz club to the precisely choreographed folk dances of the students. For a film covering what should be something weighed down by grayness, Cold War is actually bright and lively, with so much humor it sometimes overshadows the film's heavier themes. 4 p.m. Saturday, October 13.Hans Morgenstern

Wildlife. There's something nostalgic about the way color and light come together in Wildlife. Blue and peach create a softness that complements the dissatisfaction lingering in every square inch of 1960s Montana and at the heart of every character. In adapting Richard Ford's Wildlife, Paul Dano has crafted a poignant directorial debut exploring a certain cultural dissatisfaction by homing in on how it affects one family.

Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man with seemingly no clear path, always changing the lives of those around him on a whim. Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) is an ambitious woman, stuck in a marriage that's comfortable only when it's not being shaken by two strong personalities at odds with each other. We primarily witness this relationship through the eyes of their son, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), who never quite seems sure of his place in the world. He watches his parents through cracks in doors or from a distance in the kitchen, their every word landing like a gut punch even when they're yelling nearly unintelligibly. It's a testament to Dano's talent as a director that not a single performance here could be considered a weak link, though Mulligan's work — capturing a distinct blend of ambition and insecurity — is the kind of triumph that makes one long for the Old Hollywood days when films were built around stars.

The script, co-written by Zoe Kazan, delivers as many quips laced with bitterness as it does unabashed emotion, the perfect blend with which to explore the melancholic life to which these characters have become accustomed. It's not about handing out big monologues that explain everything, but peppering in details about the way life was then compared to the way life is now that reveal mountains about these people without ever feeling forced. 6:45 p.m. Saturday, October 13. — Juan Antonio Barquin

El Angel. It's not a stretch to say there's nothing of interest in the two long hours of El Angel. Luis Ortega's film is an exercise in patience posing as a dark comedy about a criminal: How much meaningless violence, sexuality, and dialogue grasping desperately at humor can you withstand before enough is enough?

Inspired by the true story of Argentine killer Carlos Robledo Puch, Ortega casts baby-faced Lorenzo Ferro as the lead. The film follows him as he joins Ramón Peralta (Chino Darín) in a life of crime, very clearly meant to be reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde except with two men, neither of which has an ounce of depth. El Angel is one of many works throughout history that has toyed with baiting a queer audience and, worse, reinforces tropes of the murderous queer.

Instead of creating an interesting character study of a man who was convicted of 11 murders, an attempted murder, 17 robberies, one rape, one attempted rape, two kidnappings, and two thefts — all before the age of 21 — Ortega presents him as a careless individual with no regard for others. The film doesn't comment on anything he's done, opting instead to glorify his life through gratuitous imagery.

Through lazy attempts at provocation, the film becomes as casually misogynistic as it is homophobic. Women are treated as mothers, whores, or both and nothing else, criminally wasting the talents of Cecilia Roth and Mercedes Morán. Ortega tries hard for dark comedy in the way he presents Puch's story, but his sense of humor is more akin to that of a teenager who thinks a saggy ballsack is deserving of a closeup and a roar of laughter. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, October 13. — Juan Antonio Barquin

Border. Ali Abbasi's Border is an absolute oddity from beginning to end. Adapted from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film shares the same sense of longing, isolation, and queerness that was present in Let the Right One In. Its themes are intriguing, but Border's plot is much weirder and bolder, for better or worse.

Tina, played by Eva Melander under layers of prosthetics that make her stand out among others, works for the Swedish border agency. She uses a seemingly supernatural sense of smell to sniff out smuggled goods, from bottles of liquor to child pornography, until she meets an individual with a facial structure similar to her own who throws off her senses.

At its best, the film explores the intimacy that can develop among people categorized as "others," regardless of their motivations. It's as melancholic as it is romantic, even when elements from Scandinavian folklore infused into the story take its characters into unexpected territory. But that same mythology, when woven into a crime subplot that isn't as compelling as watching Tina discover herself, might be too unsettling for some viewers.

When Border aims to surprise, it succeeds, rather unpleasantly at times. But the unique way Abbasi and co-writer Isabella Eklöf bring Lindqvist's peculiar short to life is something worth witnessing at least once. 11:45 p.m. Saturday, October 13. — Juan Antonio Barquin

Miami Film Festival Gems 2018. Thursday, October 11, through Sunday, October 14, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; Tickets to most screenings cost $13; discounts for students, seniors, military and veterans, and Miami Film Society members are available.

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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.

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