The Tower Theater in Little Havana once again opens its doors this weekend for the Miami Film Festival's GEMS, the annual fall showcase formerly known as MIFFecito. The festival in miniature serves as a clarion call for fans of international and American independent cinema to rise from their summer slumber for their first taste of award-season hopefuls and across-the-pond hits they might otherwise not get a chance to see or wait months to catch in commercial release.
I got a chance to see four of the 19 selections that will be showing Thursday through Sunday, and the bottom line is that local moviegoers have some top-notch titles to look forward to. This is most welcome news ... since what is widely considered the season's most highly anticipated international release is nowhere in sight. That's right, fellow movie lovers: Alfonso Cuarón's “Roma,” festival darling and Oscar front-runner, is M.I.A. in the M-I-A, at least for the time being. Let us take a moment to mourn the glaring absence of the buzzed-about, monochrome-lensed plaudit magnet.
Now that we have addressed the elephant in the auditorium, let me announce another bit of good news. I will be taking part in a critics panel following Saturday afternoon's screening of the South Koream film “Burning.” That film, an intriguing jigsaw puzzle that begs for post-screening discussion, could fill up hours of back-and-forth unpacking. Here's hoping some of you are able to join me and fellow cinephiles Juan Barquin, Hans Morgenstern, Alfred Soto and moderator Lauren Cohen for what promises to be a stimulating dissection of this celluloid enigma.
Without further ado, here are capsule reviews of the four aforementioned GEMS selections, each of them its respective country's official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. Hope to see you at the movies.
“Birds of Passage” (“Pájaros de verano”): This year's opening night film sounds, at least on paper, like material that's been done to death. Do we really want to see a movie about the origins of Colombia's drug trade? But this marvelous epic, directed by Cristina Gallego and “Embrace of the Serpent” helmer Ciro Guerra, tears out the blinders and charts its own path down this ostensibly familiar road. The violent yet lyrical tale, spanning from 1960 to 1980, is told from the point of view of northern Colombia's indigenous Wayuu people. Setting the story in motion is the courtship between Zaida (Natalia Reyes), who has the gift (curse?) of seeing omens in her dreams, and Rapayet (José Acosta), an ambitious entrepreneur with a head for business and a knack for making ill-advised friendships with “alijunas” (the Wayuu word for non-indigenous, ususally not meant as a compliment). Initially standing in the couple's way is Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), Zaida's mother and this tribe's steely matriarch. In her eyes, this suitor is simply not good enough to join her close-knit family. But there's something else gnawing at her. Call it a dark premonition.
Part of the opening night celebration Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7:15 p.m., MDC's Tower Theater Miami.
The storytelling here, unfolding like a folk tale with the inexorable pull of a Greek tragedy, doesn't break any new ground. And yet it all feels fresh and vibrant, a lament from deep within the Guajira's arid soil that weeps over blood shed in the name of honor. Gallego and Guerra have crafted a satisfying crime saga that mixes ethnography with the narrative thrust of a crime novel. They certainly know where to place the camera, but even more important, also know when to cut away. Their greatest triumph is immersing us inside this insular culture until we're able to view reality through their eyes. It's bleak, to be sure, but infinitely satisfying. One of 2018's very best.
“Burning”: The latest film from celebrated South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong is a stubbornly diffuse character study, enhanced by with the evocative allure of a mystery. How you will react to the story of Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo), a young loner who befriends and hooks up with free-spirited Haemi (newcomer Jong-Seo Jeon), will depend on your tolerance from what I like to call carrot cinema (as in holding up a carrot that remains out of reach). Jongsu, a delivery boy who wants to become a writer, agrees to feed Haemi's cat while she flies off to Africa on an existential journey. And yet we never see a cat, just disappearing food and, um, kitty droppings. Haemi, whose personality can charitably be referred to as kooky, claims she knows Jongsu from childhood, yet he doesn't remember her. And she appears to be interested in him, yet returns from Africa with Ben (“The Walking Dead's” Steven Yeun), a hunky, self-absorbed jet-setter who is everything Jongsu is not: handsome, rich and confident. Let the cat-and-mouse power play commence.
“Burning,” a loose adaptation of Huraki Murakami's short story “Barn Burning,” teases out pieces of information but clams up when it comes to providing concrete answers. It's the cinematic equivalent of that hot date you bring home who ends up hogging the covers in bed. You end up feeling more than a little left out. And, at nearly two and a half hours, Lee (“Oasis,” “Secret Sunshine”) is in no hurry to prod us along to a conclusion that feels oppressively preordained but leaves a plethora of unanswered questions for viewers to mull over. Lee has played this game before, in his richly rewarding 2010 film “Poetry,” but that was a far more accessible drama. “Burning's” level of opaqueness ends up being as frustrating as it is stimulating. The director's mastery of the medium is on ample display, and while he has created a tantalizing spellbinder, the popcorn viewer in me asked himself, is that all there is?
Screens Saturday Oct. 13 at 12:30 p.m., MDC's Tower Theater Miami (Theater 1)
“Cold War”: A full hour shorter than “Burning,” the latest offering from “Ida” director PaweÅ‚ Pawlikowski is another compact gem and, to this reviewer, an even bigger accomplishment for the Polish filmmaker. Yes, the title refers to the setting and time period, but it is also a reference to the battle of wills between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a music director assembling a troupe that will showcase his motherland's folk songs in the wake of World War II, and Zula (Jianna Kulig), the applicant with an elusive “it” factor who will become his paramour, on and off, over the next 15 years.
Inspired by his own parents, whose names are shared by the protagonists, Pawlikowski once again shoots in black and white, in the boxy Academy aspect ratio that made “Ida's” rigorous compositions linger long after its final fadeout. The camerawork here is just as obsessively calibratred and skillfully executed, but the filmmaker, working again with cinematographer Lukasz Zal, eventually allows himself to be more loose and fluid with the camera, the better to match the lovebirds' roiling emotions. The rise of communism looms as a distant threat to Wiktor and Zula's happiness before it becomes a pressing issue, but Pawlikowski stresses the couple's oil-and-water personal differences are the most formidable mountain to climb. There's a deterministic inevitability to “Cold War's” destination, but it amounts to a hill of a beans when contemplating the magnitude of Pawlikowski's achievement. Love is a quarrel, the director conveys in this riveting romance, and it's worth fighting a lifetime of repressive regimes. (“Cold War” is also scheduled to screen next month as part of the 1st annual Polish Film Festival Miami.)
Screens Saturday Oct. 13 at 4 p.m., MDC's Tower Theater Miami (Theater 1)
“El Angel”: Oh well, three out of four ain't bad. Argentina's bid for Oscar gold is a smug fiasco, a true crime drama that's so pleased with its own sense of cool, it forgets to give us halfway engaging characters. That includes the baby-faced sociopath that gives this underachieving bummer its title. When we first see Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro), he's breaking into a Buenos Aires home circa 1971 as casually as if he were housesitting. He doesn't think twice about pilfering valuables and “borrowing” a motorcycle, much to the chagrin of his parents, Aurora (a wasted Cecilia Roth) and Héctor (Luis Gnecco). They know he's embarked on an ill-advised path, complicated by the deepening bond (and unlawful collaboration) between him, classmate/unrequited crush Ramón (cutie patootie Chino Darín, son of the ubiquitous Ricardo Darín) and Ramón's dad José (Daniel Fanego, oozing sexy/ugly charm). The scope of the trio's heists continues to escalate, until Carlitos' brazen actions and Ramón brush with TV fame threaten to derail their lucrative operation.
Director/co-screenwriter Luis Ortega has all the makings of a home run with this ripped-from-the-headlines yarn, but even as events unfold in reasonably watchable fashion, the storytelling remains unfocused. The filmmaker also falls prey to a similar arrogance that, to me, ruined the obscenely overpraised “Wild Tales,” Argentina's Oscar nominated cash cow from 2014. Further compounding this holier-than-thou attitude, Ortega's depiction of Carlitos' attraction toward Ramón amounts to a self-defeating, feature-length tease. It becomes next to impossible to tell the characters' internalized homophobia apart from Ortega's bracingly regressive depiction of said self-loathing. In other words, “El Angel,” which also screens later this month as part of OUTshine Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale, is a wash regardless of viewers' sexual persuasion. Send this criminally weak potboiler to movie jail.
Screens Saturday Oct. 13 at 9:30 p.m., MDC's Tower Theater Miami (Theater 1)
GEMS begins Thursday, Oct. 11, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 14 at the Tower Theater. For tickets and more information about this year's lineup, go to www.gems2018.miamifilmfestival.com.