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Thread: The 2008 Miami International Film Festival

  1. #46
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    SILHOUETTE CITY (USA)

    I came to incite a riot. I came to affect a divine disturbance in the heart and soul of the Church. Man your battle stations, ready your weapons, lock and load!
    Rod Parsley, Founder, World Harvest Church

    When he was a 14 year old boy living in Little Rock, Michael W. Wilson became fascinated with news coverage of the siege of the compound of a group called The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord or CSA. It took place in 1985, 14 years after the formation of this white-supremacist, militaristic, Christian extremist group. They trained for what they believed to be the eventual confrontation with "secularist" forces (often referred as "Babylon") in a camp they named Silhouette City, hence the title of Wilson's documentary. It uses the CSA as a point of departure to explore the rise of the religious right in the United States, its philosophy, methods and development into a viable political force. Silhouette City benefits greatly from the willing participation of former "high priest" Kerry Noble and access to footage shot by CSA members themselves. It specifically dwells into the propagation of apocalyptic worldviews and instillment of fear as means of recruitment and control of followers. Wilson traces the historical development of the Christian right over the past two to three decades. The overt racism and anti-semitism have been largely abandoned while communication technology has been embraced as the movement became media-savvy. Wilson details how the Evangelical Christian Right became more influential within the Republican Party and all four branches of the military since the 1980s.They've attained new levels of acceptability while remaining focused on what basically amounts to the establishment of a theocracy. Fellow believers in the separation of Church and State, here's a horror movie made especially for us.

    *The screening of Silhouette City at the MIFF was the world premiere of the film. The documentary was independently produced and it's not clear at this first exhibition stage what kind of diffusion it will have. It would seem to fit PBS's Independent Lens series but maybe they would fear broadcasting it would alienate a portion of their audience.

  2. #47
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    UNDER THE STARS (SPAIN)

    This feature debut by writer/director Felix Viscarret was highly anticipated by those who had seen his shorts. It's an adaptation of a novel by Fernando Aramburu titled "The Trumpet Player from the Utopia". Its profile was further raised prior to theatrical release in Spain when it won the top awards at the film festival in Malaga. It's the story of Beny (Alberto San Juan), a caddish fellow who makes a living playing the trumpet at Madrid nightclubs. News of his father's death prompts him to return to his hometown in the province of Navarra after a long absence. Beny is clearly only concerned about what he might possibly inherit. He shows no interest or feeling for anyone, including the live-in girlfriend left behind in Madrid. He visits his brother Lalo, an insecure, recovering alcoholic engaged to Nines (Emma Suarez), a conflicted young woman who's raising her 8 year-old daughter, Ainara. Nines and Beny went to high school together and almost had sex one drunken night but, surprisingly, it's the neglected, introverted little girl who manages to connect with the gruff Beny. A hit-and-run accident involving Lalo's van becomes a major plot catalyst in this story of one man's redemption and re-acquaintance with his roots.

    Whether one likes Under the Stars is highly dependent on one's engagement with the protagonist. He is, at least initially, a highly unsympathetic character. Here's a guy who pees on the floor of his dead father's house as if to mark his territory. Mr. San Juan has built a career playing assholes of all kinds, like the misogynist cabbie in the popular comedies The Other Side of the Bed and Both Sides of the Bed, and the dishonest husband in The Ugliest Woman in the World. This time the jerk is center stage and he gets redeemed. Despite San Juan's admittedly accomplished performance ("ace" says Variety), I wasn't convinced by Beny's transformation. Since that constitutes the essence of the story, I don't think Under the Stars succeeds. It's only fair to point out that mine is a minority opinion. The film has been praised by critics and received Spanish Academy awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Lead Actor.

  3. #48
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    EAT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY (HAITI/FRANCE)

    Eat, For This Is My Body heralds the arrival of a major filmmaker, Michelange Quay. He was born in Queens, New York in 1974 to Haitian parents. The family moved to South Florida as Quay was entering his teens. At the University of Miami, while majoring in anthropology, Quay took a course in film studies that changed his life. He returned to New York and obtained a Masters in Film from NYU. His parents retired and moved to Haiti while Quay settled in Paris. The young man has maintained very close ties to Haiti throughout his life. In 2004, he released The Gospel of the Creole Pig, a short dealing with Haiti-USA relations in a unique poetic parable style. It won Best Short Film at the Milan and Stockholm festivals and a cadre of influential admirers. Most importantly, it became a calling card that secured funding for Eat, For This Is My Body and facilitated the casting of Catherine Samie of the Comedie-Francaise and A-list actress Sylvie Testud in it.

    Quay's feature debut is a bonafide art film in that poetic parable mode of his that marks him as an iconoclast and a visionary filmmaker. It opens at sea with an aerial tracking shot that takes you past the shore over a shantytown populated by black people and continues over hills and a barren landscape; it's Haiti but it could be Martinique, or Jamaica, or any number of former European colonies in Africa or the Americas. A match cut, made imperative by the fact we are actually over France's Loire Valley, takes us past more empty terrain into a plantation manor. It's helpful to think of the scenes that follow as the stanzas of a poem and to think of the characters not simply as individuals but also as archetypes. There is a matriarch (Catherine Samie), a pale, frail old lady who bathes in a vat of cream and delivers an intense monologue while sitting in bed in an all-white room. Her diatribe conveys her sense of entitlement and racial superiority over the natives. It's shot in close-up, not unlike monologues in Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers.

    The other white woman at the manor (Sylvie Testud), who could be the matriarch's daughter, is addressed as Madame. She displays a more outwardly benign view of "the others" and will, before the end of the film, leave the manor to circulate among them, perhaps in an attempt to understand them. But first, perhaps the film's centerpiece: a dozen boys arrive at the manor to dine with Madame, are made to bathe, shave their heads (evocation of comparable scenes in Salo and Full Metal Jacket might not be coincidental since Quay openly admires both Pasolini and Kubrick), and wear what Quay describes as "monkey suits". They sit around a table but the white plates remain empty while Madame in ritual form teaches them gratitute by having them exclaim "Merci" repeatedly, like a mantra. Cut to same setup with Madame replaced by a big sponge cake with white icing. The boys stare at it, poke it, then taste it, eat it with their hands and finally fling it all over the place.

    If the scenes as the manor look like tableaux vivants, the scenes outside have a naturalistic, almost anthropological quality. A woman gives birth; a group of old women perform a raucous santeria or voodoo ceremony as Quay's camera draws circles around them; a handheld camera follows Madame as she walks the town streets observing all kinds of quotidian activities, the natives stare back at the unusual presence in their midst. These scenes serve to establish a contrast. Eat, for This Is My Body constitutes a mostly visual dialectic between first world and third world, white and black, master and servant, empire and colony. It makes ample use of symbolism, some of it ambiguous enough to sustain different interpretations. It is however, shortsighted to describe it as an essay or non-narrative film because however poetic and, perhaps, digressive, Eat, For This Is My Body adds up to a parable with recognizable story elements.

    The great auteur Robert Bresson made this exhortation: "Make visible what without you might perhaps never have been seen". Michelange Quay has done just that. His feature debut is a resonant work of supreme beauty and power that couldn't have been made by anyone else.

  4. #49
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    LA ZONA (MEXICO)

    Most movies about vigilante justice merely provide cheap thrills and exploit feelings of insecurity among the law-abiding majority. La Zona is significantly more substantive and responsible. It's the feature debut of Rodrigo Pla, an Uruguayan who went to film school in Mexico in 1990 and decided to stay. After directing a number of shorts, including one featuring a revenge-minded Gael Garcia Bernal, he finally managed to get funding for La Zona. It premiered almost simultaneously at Venice and Toronto last September, winning awards at both festivals. Pla, and his screenwriter Laura Santullo, went into overdrive. The recently completed follow-up, The Desert Within, won Best Mexican Film when it premiered last month at the festival in Guadalajara.

    As a consequence of an intense storm, a billboard collapses onto the perimeter fence of the exclusive, gated community "La Zona". Three youths from the surrounding slums take advantage of this rare opportunity and break into a house in the middle of the night. The owner, brandishing a gun, catches them in the act and they kill her. A neighbor hears the shots and activates the alarm. Armed residents kill two thieves trying to escape and, accidentally, one of their own security guards. The youngest trespasser, Miguel, manages to hide in a basement. The residents hold an emergency meeting and decide not to involve the police. They bribe and intimidate the wife of the fallen security guard, bury the bodies, and search for Miguel. The teenager living in the house where Miguel is hiding finds him and decides to help him, knowing the adults would kill him. A police detective pays a visit, after being alerted by an unidentified resident. Perhaps it was the repentant older man who shot the security guard or the resident who believes that wealth doesn't give them the right to ignore the laws that should apply to all equally.

    La Zona manufactures mystery and suspense by withholding some details of the event that sets off the plot. It makes the audience care about what happens to Miguel because he is a likable kid and we sense the danger he faces. La Zona boasts excellent production values across the board. The set design and art direction are particularly worthy of notice. The marked contrast between the dilapidated slums and the manicured golf courses and luxurious residences of "La Zona" speak volumes. Lensing smartly incorporates grainy footage taken by security cameras. The cast includes Spanish thespians Maribel Verdu and Carlos Bardem, the 4-time Mexican Academy award winner Daniel Gimenez Cacho, and auspicious debuts by Alan Chavez and Daniel Tovar as the teenagers who manage to break the class barrier. While not profound or strikingly original, Pla's film is complex enough not to present any group as a monolithic entity. It's certainly not tendentiously anti-rich even while criticizing the sense of entitlement and privilege of the wealthy and powerful.

  5. #50
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    JOGO DE CENA (BRAZIL)

    Documentary filmmakers from non-English speaking countries are practically unknown in the US. The limited screen space for foreign language films is usually reserved for fictional ones. Film festivals like Miami's, with its strong documentary sections, provide a rare opportunity to sample the work of documentary filmmakers from the non-English speaking world. Brazilian septuagenarian Eduardo Coutinho is said to be a master of the genre. He made some fiction films early in his career but found his true calling in the 70s. His approach is to interview members of a particular group, say metallurgical workers on strike or practioners of Afro-based religions, and letting them tell their stories. Then he selects the most interesting ones and structures the material in the editing room. His latest film is a variation of that method that plays with the often tenuous boundary between reality and fiction.

    Coutinho placed a newspaper ad inviting women over 18 to tell their stories. Eight of the more than 80 who responded are included in Jogo de Cena. The film had its US premiere in Miami under the Portuguese title that means "Scene Game" but will be shown at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival under the English title "Playing". The interviews were filmed on a theater stage with lensing alternating between medium shot and close-up. Unwittingly, the viewer is participating in a game. A woman is telling how devastated she was when her newborn died and how she got through it when there's a sudden cut and the same story is continued by another woman. Sometimes the same tale is repeated almost verbatim by two different women. One of them has to be fake. Gradually we become aware of Coutinho's clever conceit, especially when a woman identifies herself as an actress who's been using the words of a respondent as a script. She remarks that, unlike the woman who appears as herself, she was unable to maintain her composure and couldn't help but cry while performing. The unadulterated women's stories are quite compelling. Many deal with estrangement from parents and the death of children, some involve finding solace in religion, mysticism or art, using dreams as a form of self-therapy, or aspiring to become a rapper or an actress. But the uniqueness of Jogo de Cena resides in its ability to simultaneously play a game of "true or false" with the audience and provide insights into the nature of interpretive performance.

  6. #51
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    HORROR WHICH IS ALWAYS WITH YOU (RUSSIA)

    It has been reported that, at the conference following the world premiere of Horror Which is Always With You, writer Yuri Arabov stated in the presence of director Arkadiy Yakhnis that "the ideas shown in the script were not realized" in the film. Most of Arabov's scripts have been directed by the masterful veteran Aleksandr Sokurov whereas young Mr. Yakhnis' second film makes apparent his relative lack of ambition. He has completely ignored the darker, allegorical implications of a premise revolving around a military unit's takeover of a couple's apartment to spy on an alleged terrorist living next door. When an amiable professor and his acerbic wife return home one afternoon they find four uniformed men inside. The angry, middle-aged couple, who don't get along, attempt to get the police to help them but fail. Gradually they become more accomodating and eventually begin to enjoy the company of the interlopers. Yakhnis exploits the comedic aspects of the story, focusing on how the presence of outsiders affects the couple. The professor, for instance, begins to identify with the burly leader, shaves his head and begins to wear military camouflage. There's something absurdist and Kafkaesque about the premise but the execution reduces it to a sort of routine comedy of manners. The ominous expectations engendered by the title are definitely never met.

  7. #52
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    STALAGS (ISRAEL)

    Ari Libsker's documentary is not about the military camps used by Germany to hold enlisted prisoners of war. These "stalags" of the title are a type of pulp novel set in those camps that became popular in Israel during the 50s and 60s. Usually the protagonist of the "stalags" was a handsome American or British pilot who was captured, brought to the camp and placed under the command of a female SS officer (in reality, the SS were all male) who would brutally torture and "rape" him. The resolution invariably involved the pilot finding a way to exact revenge on the woman.

    Stalags describes the Holocaust as taboo subject in Israel during the 50s and 60s. Survivors didn't want to talk about it because it was painful and also because it was commonly believed that only those who collaborated with the Nazis were allowed to live through it. Social psychologists explain that the stalags were a phenomenon that introduced themes of torture and genocide during WWII into the culture in a way that made it easier to assimilate. According to experts interviewed for this documentary, the trial of Adolf Eichmann held in Jerusalem in 1961 was the first time Israeli society dealt openly with the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. The "stalags" were influenced by the testimony of several witnesses during that trial. Most of the writers of "stalags" used pseudonyms, often English surnames that gave the impression the writer was British or American when in fact all the writers were Israelis. Perhaps it's not surprising that the Israeli government didn't censor or banned "stalags" until the first one involving a female protagonist was published. The writer of "I Was Colonel Schultz's Private Bitch" was found guilty of obscenity and the book was banned. Many "stalags" became highly valuable collector items. Perhaps the most startling revelation comes towards the end of the film: "House of Dolls", perhaps the first "stalag", is still being used in Israeli middle-schools as a tool to teach about the Holocaust.

    I found Stalags thoroughly fascinating. The presentation of the material is straightforward and conventional, which is simply an observation not a complaint. However, at one hour duration, some issues raised are not fully explored. An expanded version would be welcome. Stalags is currently having a commercial run at NYC's venerable Film Forum.

  8. #53
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    ENCARNACION (ARGENTINA)

    Not long ago, Encarnacion "Erni" Levier was a popular theater personality. She still lives in the apartment on Corrientes Avenue from which she can see the large theater marquees, but now her age shows. Erni makes a living shooting commercials and appearing in small parts. She wants to make a transition to cinema, to more serious theater, and have her own webpage. She comes from a rather conservative family living far from Buenos Aires, in Las Flores. Erni and her strait-laced sister Dora maintain a distance from each other but Erni's niece Ana is turning 15 and expects her aunt at the celebration.

    Director Anahi Berneri's second film is a character study in which we get to know the protagonist in her urban environment before the drama proper begins in Las Flores. Erni wisely decides to stay at a motel rather than her sister's house even though that is reason enough for some relatives to be critical of Erni. She is the kind of affectionate middle-aged gal who uses too much make-up and wears clothes that were designed for younger women. She looks out of place in Las Flores. The friction between Erni and Dora is intensified by disagreements over a land parcel they both own and Ana's fascination with her aunt's lifestyle.

    Encarnacion would be inconceivable without Silvia Perez, a mostly theater-and-tv actress playing the somewhat autobiographical central role. It's simply a breakthrough performance for this 52 year-old actress who creates an inmensely likable and resourceful yet flawed and vulnerable character. The film is more classical in presentation, with its balanced array of long shots and close ups, than many of the films by young Argentine directors. What it shares with them is a reluctance to appeal to the emotions, a conscious avoidance of melodrama that makes it unlikely it will get a wide release anywhere. Encarnacion regards the characters from a rather clinical, detached perspective. It will solidify Berneri's reputation, following her Teddy-winning debut A Year Without Love (distributed in the US by Strand Releasing in 2006).

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    CALLE SANTA FE (CHILE-FRANCE)

    Carmen Castillo was an important member of Chile's MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and the lover and partner of its leader, Miguel Enriquez. When a CIA-sponsored coup d'etat placed General Pinochet at the head of the government on September 11th, 1973, Castillo, Enriquez and two small daughters from previous marriages went into hiding. In December of that year, they moved to a house on Santa Fe street that became the MIR's clandestine center of operations. Pinochet's security and intelligence agencies were adamantly locating, capturing, torturing, interrogating, and executing anyone suspected of revolutionary activity. In September of 1974, a priest managed to smuggle the girls into the Italian consulate. On October 5th, an armed commando entered the house on Santa Fe street. Enriquez was killed and a pregnant Castillo was seriously wounded. She lost the baby but managed to survive at a nearby hospital. Less than a month later, she was forced into exile, eventually settling in Paris. Castillo assumed the role of MIR's spokesperson outside Chile, then became an author and documentarist.

    Calle Santa Fe is her most ambitious project to date. The two documentaries that preceded it seem now like rehearsals or preparation for it. Both concern persons who had a huge impact on Castillo's life and constitute a reassesment of conflicted relationships. La Flaca Alejandra (1994) is a sort of biography of the MIR member who revealed the location of the house on Santa Fe to the authorities. "La Flaca" became a double agent following her capture by Pinochet's intelligence agency. My Father's Chile (2004) centers around Castillo's frank engagement with her father, a former University Dean and Social Democrat who repudiated the MIR's ideology and methodology. Calle Santa Fe is wider in scope, a sprawling document that broaches a variety of pertinent issues. It alternates between Castillo's personal perspective and that of other revolutionaries, young and old, the families of those who died, Castillo's relatives, and the neighbor whose involvement ultimately saved her life. Castillo's narration reveals that it was the accidental meeting with this apolitical man that inspired a more accurate and nuanced appreciation of Chilean society.

    Was the sacrifice worth it? Was it fair to put the struggle for justice and fairness ahead of parental responsibilities? Was it justifiable to remain in exile when other MIR members returned clandestinely to rejoin the opposition? Should the house on Santa Fe street be turned into a revolutionary museum/meeting place? There are more issues raised and they are dealt with courage and openness. There is a willingness on Castillo's part to disclose her often conflicting feelings that is quite endearing and moving. She is by all apearances reluctant to be cast in the role of heroine of the revolution. It's important to note that the only episode handled obliquely concerns her expulsion from the MIR after she penned memoirs that revealed differences of opinion among the membership. Castillo has no regrets about her past and holds no grudges. Her generosity and truly revolutionary spirit will remain with me long after the details of her struggle have receded from memory.

  10. #55
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    AWARDS

    DRAMATIC FEATURES

    IBERO-AMERICAN CINEMA COMPETITION
    Grand Jury Prize: Cochochi (Mexico) and Eat, For This Is My Body (Haiti/France)
    Audience Award: La Zona (Mexico)

    WORLD CINEMA COMPETITION
    Grand Jury Prize: Tricks (Poland)
    Audience Award: Bliss (Turkey)
    FIPRESCI Prize: Foul Gesture (Israel)


    DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

    Grand Jury Prize: Santiago (Brazil)
    Audience Award: Stranded: I Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains

  11. #56
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    OTHER FILMS OF INTEREST
    One can't see everything that looks interesting. Some films I missed at the Festival.

    YO (Spain)
    "Beautifully shot, richly atmospheric mood piece set in an atypically gloomy Majorca. Me is the story of Hans, a German handyman at a wealthy estate who finds himself slowly assuming the identity of his namesake predecessor, whose disappearance remains a mystery".
    FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam.

    DRIFTER (Brazil)
    "The experience of wandering on foot for countless days and seemingly endless distance resonantly captured in Cao Guimaraes' "Drifter." As an immersion in pure sight and sound, with Guimaraes' magnificent landscape photography and a fascinating soundtrack by experimental music duo O Grivo, pic reaches rare heights of sensory power. Yet it's also a sensitive doc on the strangely peaceful but sometimes terrible state of homeless wanderers in Brazil's rugged Minas Gerais state." (Variety Review)

    BLISS (Turkey)
    "In contemporary Turkey, where archaic honor killings still prevail in a society of increasingly western sensibilities, three people struggle to fllee their rigid, tradition-bound destinies. This intense and beautifully rendered drama boasts stellar performances, a compelling musica score and stunning images of the Sea of Marmara".
    Audience Award-Miami and Montpellier

    IT'S HARD TO BE NICE (Bosnia)
    "Srdan Vuletic's second feature, following the prize-winning Summer in the Golden Valley, is an engaging, urban fairy tale that marks a move by the writer-director toward more commercial filmmaking. Sarajevo-set yarn about a man who wants to change his life and take charge of his destiny, "It's Hard to Be Nice" could also be a parable for the course Bosnia itself should travel. Sparkily written tale comes full circle in a satisfying way, with the sights of the capital city offering a historical counterpoint to the action." (Variety review)

    THE GIRLS (Chile)
    Using film as a scalpel to cut open the feminine mistique, Rodrigo Marin's two-hander pierces the heart of female relationships with uncanny precision".
    "Heart-wrenching" (Variety)

    MADRIGAL (Cuba)
    "With its distinctive blend of surrealism, sensuality and science fiction, this stylish romantic comedy by director Fernando Perez (Madagascar, Habana Suite) suggests an inimitable sensibility that's nothing short of breathtaking."
    Special Jury Prize, Best Art Direction at Habana Film Festival

    FOUL GESTURE (Israel)
    "Tense revenge drama about a middle-age man who decides to take justice into his own hands after becoming the victim of a road rage incident."
    FIPRESCI Prize: Miami.

    LETTERS TO A DICTATOR (Portugal)
    "The brutal effects of oppression, both political and personal, form the crux of this documentary that showcases letters written to Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar in the 50s."

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