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Filmwise, MIFF Ends on an Unpalatable Note

As tasty as scrambled eggs and beer might be, it sounds fairly unpalatable to me, and so was the Chilean film the title of which, SCRAMBLED BEER, took its name. It was our last film of the festival, and was also a last minute switch. Tuesday night also featured a film from the Philippines, which at the time drove me nuts (not in a good way) but with some distance has grown on my considerably.

SLINGSHOT (Philippines; 86 min.)
director: Brillante Mendoza

Mostly on Bruce’s recommendation, I decided to catch Brillante Mendoza’s film SLINGSHOT, after skipping it in Toronto. Being half Filipino, I do like to catch films from the Philippines when possible, but generally I haven’t had much success with enjoying them. SLINGSHOT is a fascinating film, one that drove me nuts while watching it… I believe I even told Scot that I thought it was the most annoying film I’d ever seen, but upon reflection, it’s really quite remarkable, and displays Mendonza’s talents quite well. The action of the film takes place during Holy Week, and touches upon themes of religion, politics and poverty. The opening scene is frantic and loud as the police raid a large building where dozens of poor families live. Everyone has their claim to innocence, but these pleas fall largely on deaf ears as the police route most of the buildings male inhabitants and haul them into prison for the night. The next day, most of the men are released and return home, but we soon discover that there isn’t a whole lot of innocence among the lot of them.

Of course, that’s the theme of the film, as campaigning for local elections is in full-swing, and we see various politicians dropping all semblance of propriety and buying votes… literally handing money out in public square to obtain votes. At street level, we see that most of these people will do whatever they have to do to make some money. One man must con another man to pay a third man who is collecting money to pay off his debts to a fourth, and so on. While the constant fighting, shrieking and mayhem that goes on throughout much of this film is incredibly grating, the film is so realistically shot that you sometimes forget you are watching a narrative. There is something so immediate and raw about this footage that you can’t help but be drawn in. Mendoza captures life on the poor streets of the Philippines in a remarkably vivid and realistic way. 3.5 cats

SCRAMBLED BEER (Chile; 88 min.)
director: Cristobal Valderrama

After reading the synopsis of this film (something about a cross between a buddy film and a time travel film) Scot decided he wanted to see SCRAMBLED BEER. So we exchanged tickets for BLUE EYELIDS, which we’d already purchased for this one. I was game; I’d never seen a film from Chile before. It’s such a skinny country! Well, for me, scrambled eggs and beer just don’t go well together.

Vladimir is basically an irredeemable lout. From the moment we meet him he is shown to be a boor, a cad, and a slob. Things get worse from there. After being evicted, he moves in with his friend Jorge and his girlfriend Monica, who clearly is repulsed by Vladimir. After their first day in the new apartment, Vladimir wakes up the next morning with Monica in bed next to him, suddenly filled with passion for him. Despite his shock, he welcomes this new attitude, until he finds out that somehow three weeks have passed since he went to sleep the night before. Things get even more confused when he wakes up the next morning two weeks earlier. He starts to suspect that Fedora, a creepy neighbor who also happens to be a witch, might be involved. So while things sounds a little wacky and confusing, hold on, because suddenly, just over half way through the film, a twist is introduced the radically changes the tone and expectations for the viewer.

Sadly, none of this is handled very well. The comedy is broad and obvious; something that actually might feel right at home in a multiplex. The characters, especially Vladimir, are so unappealing and obnoxious that it’s hard to really root for any of them. Finally, the sudden revelation comes out of nowhere and despite itself, almost makes the film a little interesting. It saved it from a 1 cat film for me. I can now give it 1.5 cats.

Overall, the Miami International Film Festival is a great vacation choice for a film buff. The weather in early March is beautiful, the film selection is great, and for us, the accomodations were perfect (thanks to Chlotrudis member Richard Alleman for the loan of his apartment!) You can't get much better than hitting the beach every day then watching movies every night. As far as drawbacks go, every film festival I attend just makes me admire the amazing organizational feat that the Toronto International Film Festival accomplishes every year. The queues were thoroughly disorganized in Miami, and I feel that is one of the single most important things to do right from the public's perspective. On a larger scale, Miami has a terrible service industry. I can't recall a single satisfying encounter with waitstaff in restaurants. Even if things started off well, by the end of the experience, things had devolved. Gratuities are included in the bill at most restaurants in Miami Beach, and I feel this just takes away any incentive for servers to care. Still, I would attend the Miami International Film Festival again in the future.

Miami Offerings from Northern Europe

After a lovely day at the beach, Monday night found us exploring cooler climes first in Sweden, then in the Netherlands. MIFF is truly international, and Monday night was certainly the strongest night of the week.

YOU, THE LIVING (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark/Norway; 95 min.)
director: Roy Andersson

Swedish director Roy Andersson follows-up his delightfully surreal SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR with an exploration of humankind in all its subdued glory. YOU, THE LIVING, subtitled, a film about the grandeur of existing, is constructed as a series of vignettes, many hilarious in their deadpan absurdity. In an opening sequence, a woman repeatedly shouts at her lover and her dog, telling them to leave her. When they finally, reluctantly leave, she breaks into song. It's surprising and delightfully funny. Members of a marching band show up repeatedly, particularly a tuba player who annoys both his wife and his neighbors when he practices at home. A young woman meets a rock star she admires and later dreams of their wedding night with him. Another man dreams of facing the electric chair after attempting (and failing) to perform the old pulling a tablecloth out from under place settings at a dinner party.

YOU, THE LIVING took three years to shoot, because nearly all of the sets, including the outdoor scenes, were constructed for the film. There's an amazing sequence when the young girl and her rock star, dream husband are in their new apartment which slowly begins to move like a train across the city. Andersson's washed out palette of grays, browns, light blues and whites are enhanced by the whitened faces of the actors. Andersson's films are experiences that might not be for everyone, but they are unique and delightful for me. 4 cats.

BLIND (Netherlands/Belgium/Bulgaria; 98 min.)
director: Tamar van den Doop

BLIND is your basic, tragically doomed romance, yet it's one that writer/director Tamar van den Doop handles with such beauty and originality that it becomes elevated to something much more. Ruben Rietlander is a young man perhaps barely out of his teens, who lost his eyesight during childhood. His elderly mother Catherine cannot properly care for him on her own, and the women she hires to read to him are driven away by his violent tantrums. Enter Marie a scarred, albino woman in her 30s who is shunned by the villagers. For some reason, perhaps out of desperation, Catherine hires Marie to read to her son. Perhaps because she is an outcast herself, Marie will not put up with Ruben's outbursts and she physically manhandles him rather than flees shrieking as is the norm with the hired help. Gradually, the two fall in love, but in Ruben's mind, Marie is a beautiful young woman with fiery red hair and blue eyes. As is the case in tragic romances, Ruben's doctor discovers a way to restores Ruben's eyesight. Marie knows if this happens, their love is doomed, so she leaves and manages to stay hidden from the heart-broken Ruben... until the inevitable happens.

BLIND is gorgeously shot. Tamar van der Doop has a terrific eye, and the incorporation of Ruben's visual fantasies of how things might appear are surreal and gorgeous. Halina Reijin is particularly strong as Marie, keeping her rage tightly coiled inside, and watching her slowly unclench as she slowly lets her guard down around Ruben is a real treat. The period costumes, and lush settings add to the visual feast. 4.5 cats.

Sunday Night Movies in Miami

If there was a theme to Sunday night's films, it would have to be carrying our dead or our absent loved ones. In POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD, two children living in Caracas, Venezuela, must invent stories about their absent parents who are revolutionaries in a political struggle. In Zhang Yang's GETTING HOME, a man literally carries the body of his dead friend back home to his family.

POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD (Venezuela/Peru; 90 min.)
director: Mariana Rondón

In her introduction, director Mariana Rondón thanked the countries of Venezuela and Peru for funding her film, then commented on how POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was a singularly Venezuelan story. In 1960's Caracas, revolutionaries struggle against a political regime. Two children tell stories of growing up with revolutionary parents through a lens of romance and innocence. Rondón wonderfully combines dramatic and comedic narrative storytelling; faux docementary; and comic book style hand-drawn animation over live action to tell this darkly funny, yet serious story of a very volatile time and culture.

At first POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD was confusing; Rondón jumps around in time without warning, and the two children narrate their stories as if they were comic book characters. There is none of the political nuance to explain the whys of the conflict. Gradually however, the story becomes clear, peppered with fabulous sequences of the various characters lives. Family scenes around the Venzuelan New Year are lively and telling; especially when Teo, one of narrators' parents, returns home and is subsequently captured by the government and imprisoned. A sequence 2/3 of the way through the film, depicting a group of female, revolutionary, college students committing an act or defiance is perfectly executed in groovy, 60s style, bringing together split screens, animation, music and narration sublimely. Rondón is a talented filmmaker whose work deserves broader exposure. I have no idea what kind of distribution POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD will receive, but I can only hope it makes it to Boston. 4/5 cats

GETTING HOME (China/Hong Kong; 110 min.)
director: Zhang Yang

Straddling the sublime and the ridiculous, young, Chinese director Zhang Yang explores the bonds of friendship in GETTING HOME. Benshan Zhao (HAPPY TIMES) plays Zhao, an aging factory worker whose co-worker and drinking buddy dies unexpectedly far from home. Zhao is determined to fulfill a promise he made to his friend, to return him to his village for burial. Operating with limited funds, and carefully trying to pass his deceased companion off as drunk or comatose, Zhao begins a series of cracked adventures is his attempt to complete his task, and along the way, he learns the true meaning of friendship and finds a path for his life.

Zhang, director the popular Chinese films SHOWER and QUITTING, starts things off on a silly note, and throughout the film there is an understandably absurd quality to the proceedings. Gradually Zhang starts to introduce more serious themes, yet in a way that fits in with the established tone of the film and never seems overly heavy-handed. Sure there's a little schmaltz, but it's not overdone like in a Hollywood film. While he doesn't take the experimental risks that he did in QUITTING, GETTING HOME is an entertaining and lovely film. 3.5 cats

MIFF: Saturday Night Movies

Saturday night featured one of the most unusual films of the festival, and one of the best - and not necessarily the ones I would have expected. It also found us walking the pedestrian mall at Lincoln Road, an experience that makes navigating the mobs in Times Square seem rather tame. Yikes!

ESTÔMAGO - A GASTRONOMIC STORY (Brazil/Italy; 112 min.)
director: Marcos Jorge
This lively black comedy examines the nature of power as it relates to food. Raimundo Nonato comes to the big city from the "jungles" of Brazil - no money, no place to stay - and wanders into a cafe where he orders the fried chicken snack and gets in trouble with the owner when he can't pay. The two work out a deal where Nonato will wash dishes in exchange for board. Diner owner Zulmiro soon discovers that Nonato has a talent for cooking and teaches him how to prepare some of the diner's staples. Within days, the place is packed, and Nonato's food is universally praised. Soon he is scooped up by the local restauranteur, Giovanni, who further instructs Nonato on the finer arts of cooking, including wines, and shopping at the market for a restaurant. As Nonato's fortunes rise, so does his relationship with Íria, a local prostitute with a jones for good food.

Director Jorge intercuts Nonato's story with scenes from the present day where he is embroiled in a power struggle in prison. He enters his cell of a dozen or so prisoners at the bottom of the ladder, but as his culinary skills provide gourmet meals for his cellmates, he slowly finds himself off the floor and into the bottom bunk, then rising higher and higher until he is directly below the cell's leader.

Jorge deftly deftly juggles the two stories, Nonato's rise to power in prison, and the reason he's in prison in the first place. The acting is appealing, especially João Miguel as Nonato, and Fabiula Nascimento as Íria. The black comedy is skillfully handled, and the build-up to Nonato's initial downfall well paced. I hope this film gets a release Stateside, and if it does, it comes highly recommended. 4 cats.

DISENGAGEMENT (Israel/France/Germany/Italy; 117 min.)
director: Amos Gitai
Israeli director Amos Gitai has clearly put together an accomplished work in DISENGAGEMENT, but it's one that requires a little more knowledge of political situation there than I possess to fully appreciate it. After a terrific, yet nebulous opening sequence with Uli (Liron Levo), an off-duty, Israeli police officer and an unnamed Palestinain woman (the marvelous Hiam Abbass) sharing a cigarette, some conversation, then a kiss while on a train, the action jumps (back?) to Paris, where a French woman of Israeli background (Juliette Binoche) stands a bedside vigil as her father dies. Her adopted half-brother Uli arrives, and after some slightly offbeat conversation and particularly bizarre flirtation, the two join their late father's lawyer (Jeanne Moreau) for the reading of the will. There Binoche's character discovers that a daughter she had given up at birth, was living in a camp in the Gaza strip, and that her father had visited her several times. As a police officer, Uli was returning to Israel to move the settlers in Gaza out, and his sister decides to return with him to find her daughter.

With some outstanding visuals and some powerful scenes, Gitai illustrates the difficult task of the Israeli police having to forcibly move Israeli citizens off the Gaza strip. He also shows how ill-prepared the police are, and how easily such a sensitive task can be bungled. Binoche's character is a bit of a cypher, acting a little mentally touched at first, then finding her ground when on the hunt for her daughter. It was nice to see Dana Ivgy (OR, MY TREASURE) playing Binoche's daughter. A strong film, but a little too obtuse for me. 3 cats.

MIFF: The North American Entries

Scot and I took in our first night of Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) offerings on Friday. Each of the ten films we are seeing comes from a different country, and appropriately enough, our first film was from Canada. Sadly, it's been the biggest disappointment so far.

AMAL, directed by Richie Mehta, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and recently won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. The film is based in India and follows the story of autorickshaw driver Amal who defies convention and is actually honest and hard-working. One of his fares is an exceedingly difficult, apparently homeless man who belittles him harshly. In fact, this man is a wealthy hotel owner who is dying. When his encounter with Amal shows him that some of the wealthiest men are the poorest, he rewrites his will cutting his greedy, conscienceless sons out and instructing his lawyer to find Amal our of the thousands of autorickshaw drivers in the city. If you're thinking it sounds like a parable, complete with cardboard characters and heavy-handed lessons, you'd be right. An ironic twist ending does a little to raise the film above bad to simply mediocre. Mehta adapted AMAL from a short story written by his brother Shaun. 1.5 cats

Moving to the U.S. our second film was a big improvement. Ira Sachs (FORTY SHADES OF BLUE) leaves his tested theme of outsiders living in the modern-day South and enters 1950s, northwestern suburbia to look at the domestic difficulties of marriage in MARRIED LIFE. The talented acting pair of Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson play Harry and Pat Allen, a married couple who like, if not love each other. In an amusing reversal, Pat equates love with good sex, and Harry is seeking a deep, romantic love. He thinks he's found it too, in the form of young, beautiful widow Kay (Rachel McAdams) as he confesses to his longtime friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan). Unable to confess to Pat, Harry steers the plot into Hitchcock territory by deciding he must kill his wife to spare her heartbreak and pain. Meanwhile, the plot gets even messier when first Richard begins to pursue Kay, then Pat reveals a secret of her own.

While this all sounds like a melodramatic, period thriller, Sachs manages to keep things lively by casting his film as a comedy. It is in the comedic elements that Brosnan is allowed to shine, conveying a surprising physical comedy. The cast is attractive and talented, and the production design lovely, and while there may be a plot contrivance or two, this lively film manages to entertain for the duration. 3.5 cats.

Movies in Miami

Scot, Bruce and I are fortunate enough to be in Miami for the Miami International Film Festival. The weather is gorgeous, the movies have been pretty interesting; some hite, some misses, and the company has been delightful. The Festival itself is well-attended, which is great, but unfortunately it's pretty disorganized. I'm not sure if that's the norm, or unique for this year. It's rather surprising considering the festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. You'd think by now they'd have it down.

At any rate, between the beach, the restaurants and the movies, there has been surprisingly little time to do much blogging, but I am going to try and at least review my films here over the next few days. I'd also like to mention seeing Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper at a Q&A for their film MARRIED LIFE. Believe me, if I could have chatted with Ms. Clarkson personally, I would have extended that Chlotrudis Awards Ceremony invitation! No such luck.

More soon. That's a picture of Scot on South Beach taken last Friday, by the way.