El Club
El Club

In Place of MIFFecito, GEMS Prepares the Palate for What's to Come

Acting as a preview to the yearly film festival being held in March 2016, GEMS boasts a small collection of films screening at the Tower Theater daily starting Thursday through Sunday. "GEMS is the name we came up with to best represent the personality of our new fall festival event," explains Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami International Film Festival. "It is a combination of top award winners from major festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance; award-season Oscar contenders; and major international box-office popular sensations. In essence, it is the 'cream of the cream' of the fall season... or the brightest gems."

Compared to last year's MIFFecito minifest, things look promising. More than just screenings, the minifestival will feature guests from a selection of films such as El Club, Havana Motor Club, The Clan, and It's Now or Never. With such a selection, it's tough to choose exactly which films to check out and which to miss, which is why New Times has previewed a handful of gemstones ahead of this weekend's festival.

El Club, 9:15 p.m. Friday, October 23

Pablo Larraín is back in true form with El Club, a film that's as miserably hilarious as it is scathingly confrontational about the state of the Catholic church and the men it protects. El Club — which places its lens on four former priests and an ex-sister of the church who have been sent to a beachy retreat as both cover-up and punishment for crimes they commit — isn't afraid of keeping its audience at a distance with its content.

There's constant discussion of the crimes these men and woman commit: pedophilia, sexual assault, kidnapping, murder. They all go about their lives in ignorance of their crimes, treating the place like a spa. The personalities of these individuals are matched with an almost off-putting aesthetic; shots of the beach that seem almost washed-out and digital night shots full of noisy imagery. Even its politics seem muddled to the point of frustration, never allowing the viewer to sympathize with a single character for more than a few seconds before being reminded that they're awful people.

The film rarely misses a beat in offering the actors, especially Larraín regulars Alfredo Casto and Antonia Zegers, scenes that allow them to show off their skills. Delivering unsympathetic characters that are fascinating to watch regardless of their vitriolic ways is exactly why El Club is such a success and why Larraín remains one of the most promising Chilean directors around. (J.B.)

Embrace of the Serpent, 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 23.

To say that narratives about colonialism and the dichotomy of native and nonnative are a dime a dozen isn't much of a stretch, and Embrace of the Serpent is just another one of the bunch. Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra's latest film chronicles two narratives that impact each other, both tied together by a common source: an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate, who has worked with two very different white scientists for the sake of finding a healing plant (among other things). The film switches, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes rather fluidly, between 1909 and 1940, with Karamakate being accompanied by German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg in the former and biologist/botanist Richard Evans Schultes in the latter. Loosely inspired by the diaries the scientists kept during their time in the Amazon, the film chooses instead to focus a little more on the native guide who accompanies them both.

That criticism of colonialism can feel heavy-handed at times, especially when the film dives into religious discussions and attempts to say something about false messiahs and the disastrous ways that white men have infected an untouched primitive world with the church. Stylistically, however, the black-and-white photography is a nice touch, removing as much of the Amazon's beauty as possible to make it the menacing and lonely place the film needs it to be. Embrace of the Serpent is an interesting little road — or river — trip through the Amazon that works, even though it doesn't always know how to say everything it wants to. (J.B.)

My Golden Days
My Golden Days

My Golden Days, 2 p.m. Saturday, October 24.

"I'm not Ulysses. I have no nostalgia for my country," anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) says to a lover in Greece. With a title like My Golden Days, you might be forgiven to think this is indeed a nostalgia piece, but instead it's a film by Arnaud Desplechin, a French filmmaker who understands how to pick apart sentiments to their core. Focusing on the idea of first love, Desplechin puts together a beautifully shot movie told in retrospect by Paul, who sometimes has trouble remembering things.

Paul's memories bring forth a troubled childhood with an abusive father and a mother he never liked. When an adolescent Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) discovers love, he lingers on it, conjuring up the complex and intriguing Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). She goes from sleepy-eyed confidence to tearful insecurity. Roy-Lecollinet gives a poignant performance — you can almost sense her heart blossoming. The film is much more than a melodrama; with a mature psychology, it explores what these characters carry from youth into adulthood.

Beyond Roy-Lecollinet's performance, the actor who portrays the elder Paul, Amalric, is the film's secret weapon, which is finally unleashed during the epilogue. By this time, viewers have spent so much time with the younger Paul, it's easy to wonder if the adult version can transmit the complexity of the heartache he has suffered. But he can, and he does so with a gut-wrenching performance. (H.M.)

The Clan, 6:45 p.m. Saturday, October 24.

The Clan may just be one of the most demented movies Argentina has ever produced. It's a wide-eyed stare into the abyss of the legacy of its "Dirty War" of the '70s and '80s, where many opposed to the dictatorship simply disappeared. During the South American nation's transition to democracy, a few supporters of the military junta had a hard time breaking habits. One such fellow was Arquímedes Puccio, who dragged his wife and five children into his schemes of kidnapping people for ransom. He would then kill his victims when he got the money.

Director Pablo Trapero uses sickly black humor to recount the Puccio family's crimes. He uses an often-steely palette of icy blues and grays. Fitting right in are the wide gray eyes of lead actor Antonia Bengoechea, who also sports a shock of white, frazzled hair. Despite the perky soundtrack with the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" playing a recurring role and the film's kinetic pace, Bengoechea's sinister performance is the glue that holds The Clan together. He gives the monstrous Puccio a riveting magnetism as he gaslights his wife and kids to unquestioningly follow his schemes, which will induce uncomfortable titters from the audience.

The editing and chronology might seem confusing to some, but The Clan's purpose is not to tell a thrilling whodunit story. It's about reckoning with a dark past, and that means taking a hard look at a horrible history and presenting its twisted stupidity for what it was: an aberrant notion of domesticity. (H.M.)

The Assassin stars Shu Qi as Yinniang.
The Assassin stars Shu Qi as Yinniang.
Well Go USA

The Assassin, 2:45 p.m. Sunday, October 25.

After spending much of the eight years since his last film, The Flight of the Red Balloon, entrenched in research, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien has returned with The Assassin, a Wuxia film that takes place in eighth-century China. Hsiao-hsien worked with four other writers to get the details of the later years of the Tang Dynasty just right, making the result a remarkable piece of storytelling that is as enthralling as it is detailed.

Shu Qi plays Yinniang, the titular assassin. Abducted as a child by a former princess turned militant nun (Sheu Fang-yi), the nun trains Yinniang to be a skilled killer for China's central government. However, Yinniang has a weakness: her heart. After she fails one of her tasks by showing mercy, the nun sends her on a mission to kill the governor of her birthplace, Lord Tian J'ian (Chen Chang), who also happens to be Yinniang's cousin. To complicate their connection, Yinniang was once betrothed to him.

The film has a look and sound that makes the plot feel almost secondary. Hsiao-hsien is known for holding unedited shots for long periods of time, and his cinema is sometimes unfairly called "languorous." In The Assassin, Hsiao-hsien's scenes never out wear the viewer's interest because of their rich mise en scène. (H.M.)

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