Tag Archives: Miami International Film Festival

“7 Cajas” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Directors: Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori

Writers: Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tito Chamorro

Stars: Celso Franco, Lali Gonzalez, and Nico Garcia

Victor (Celso Franco) is a seventeen year old wheelbarrow delivery boy working at a large market in Asunción, Paraguay who dreams of being on television. One day he is called to a butcher shop to pick-up and deliver seven boxes. He is not told what is in them, and is paid with a half an US $100 bill. After the police arrive he is rushed away while the head butcher stalls the cops. Luis (Nico Garcia) is another wheelbarrow delivery man. He needs money for medication for his son. After arriving at the butcher shop late he learns that Victor was given his task.

Now Victor not only has to watch out for the police, he has to watch out for Luis and the cronies he enlists to take the boxes away from Victor. While Victor constantly navigates the paths of the market, he is interrupted by Liz (Lali Gonzalez)–an orphan girl with a crush on Victor. As day goes into night Victor realizes he may have bitten-off more than he can chew with the mystery cargo of seven boxes.

7 Cajas is a film with a Tarantino Script and a Michael Mann vibe. The dialogue and characters are witty, gritty, and funny. The heavy and depressing story is interjected with naturally comedic moments and dialogue that adds a necessary levity. This is a world with people the average American audience member has no natural connection with. The value of human life is lost on most of the characters, and what they call their average day is alien to us. And yet because of the intelligent script we are able to overcome this chasm between our world and theirs and connect with these people.

The look of the film also adds to the story and action. The over saturated light and heat felt at the beginning of the film gives way to the fluorescent harsh light at night. The cinematography is on par with the Michael Mann of Miami Vice and Collateral.

The acting is equal to the cast of Reservoir Dogs minus Quentin Tarantino. These characters are morally bankrupt, but because Franco, Gonzalez, Garcia, et all are at the top of their game we are able to connect and empathize with them.

By the end, the story and the actors have taken you to an unexpected and ultimately satisfying place.

Grade = A

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“Broken” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director: Rufus Noris

Writer: Mark O’Rowe

Stars: Tim Roth, Eloise Laurence, Robert Emms, Rory Kinnear, Cillian Murphy

Broken begins with Skunk (Eloise Laurence) arriving from school and saying hi to her mentally challenged neighbor Rick (Robert Emms) while he washes his father’s car. As Skunk walk across her cul-de-sac she is passed by and greets her neighbor Bob (Rory Kinnear). Bob takes off his shirt and proceeds to beat Rick to a pulp. Later the police arrive and take Rick away under arrest. Skunk asks her Father (Tim Roth), why, if Bob attacked Rick are the police arresting Rick? She learns that Bob’s middle daughter told him that Rick raped her.

It is later revealed that the daughter is lying. Curious about what a condom is, Bob’s middle daughter takes one from her sister’s purse. Finding it disgusting she flushes it down the toilet. Not realizing the condom did not flush, Bob later discovers it in her toilet and interrogates her about who she used it with. In a panic she accuses Rick of molesting and raping her. From this horrific lie all the lives of these neighbors veer out of control.

Broken refers to the characters in the film. They are all damaged, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. They are all also at their wits ends. Rick, already challenged in life, is traumatized by his attack. Bob is raising his daughters alone and failing miserably at it. Skunk, her brother, and her father are dealing with the loss of their mother/wife.

What makes the story engaging is that these are all relatable people with relatable problems. We can identify and empathize with all of them. This is made easy not only with the quality of the script, but also the excellence of the acting. There is not a false note in any of the performances, and each actor plays off each other with a natural ease.

This is also a film without a gift-wrapped Hollywood ending. Bad things happen to good and bad people alike. Characters you care about are revealed to be flawed. Characters you should hate you are made to understand. Though the story never lets up or gives you a moment of humor or comedy, the it is not oppressive. The story is about the hardships of life; the characters are real and flawed.

If Broken makes it to a film festival or art house theatre by you, give it a chance. You will be impressed.

Grade = A

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“The Artist and the Model” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director: Fernando Treuba

Writers: Fernando Treuba and Jean-Claude Carriere

Stars: Jean Rochefort, Aida Folch, and Claudia Cardinale

Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) is the artist–in this case sculpture–living in a small village in Occupied France during World War II. One day his wife, Lea (Claudia Cardinale), finds a young lady who she thinks would be a perfect muse for her husband. And he agrees.

They begin working at his studio in the hills. There, Merce (Aida Folch) is asked to pose in the nude in different positions while Cros makes different sketches and machetes all the while trying to find inspiration. As their sessions progress they learn about each other and their circumstances. But the fragility of their situation cannot stand. There is a war raging and it is only a matter of time before reality is at the door.

The Artist and the Model is beautifully shot in black & white. What little of a story the movie has is too light to carry an entire film. Though it is only 105 minutes, it feels like more. The acting is well handled, but the story does not allow you to care for the characters. By the end of the film you do not understand Cros’ final motivation for his final act. What happens happens and you are left wondering why.

Grade = C-

Click on image to view trailer.  (in Spanish)

Click on image to view trailer. (in Spanish)

“Edificio Royal” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Writer / Director: Ivan Wild

Stars: Jaime Barbini, Beatriz Carmago, Jorge Perugorria, Adel David Vasquez, and Katherine Velez

Edificio Royal is a dark comedy about a day in the life of residents in an apartment building in Bogotá, Columbia.

A husband answers the phone in his apartment. After a one-sided conversation with the person on the other end he leaves the apartment with his wife complaining why he has to go to work on his day off. Later, upon his return to the Edificio Royal he yells for Gabriel (Adel David Vasquez), the building custodian. Gabriel meets the husband at the front of the building by the husband’s hearse. Together they pull out an occupied coffin–with viewing window–out of the hearse, carry it into the building, on the elevator, down the hall, and then into the husband’s apartment. We quickly realize this is not your average apartment building.

As the film progresses we are introduced to different occupants of the building throughout the same time of day. In other words, the woman who Gabriel and the husband pass while in the hallway has her story told later in the film, but at a certain point of the film showing us her day we watch her in the hallway passing Gabriel and the husband. This technique is used repeatedly from one character story to another. The central link is Gabriel.

The acting across the board is good to excellent. Adel Vasquez is very convincing as the put-upon Gabriel. Katherine Velez is perfect as the totally self-absorbed and yet completely un-self aware building owner Margarita.

The look and feel of the film is shot in shades of blue and grays, with a gritty realism.

Unfortunately the story is not able to hold your attention. In the end you are left wondering what the point of the whole film was. Though the film has morbidly humorous points, the pace never increases beyond a crawl. There will be more than one occasion when you check your watch to see how much time has passed. The net effect is the movie feels as it was intended to be a straight drama that just so happened to have some unintentionally funny moments.

Grade = C-

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“Dark Blood” (2012 / 1993) – MIFF – Review


Director: George Sluizer

Writer: Jim Barton

Stars: River Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce, and Judy Davis

Harry Fisher (Jonathan Pryce) is a has-been actor traveling with his wife, Buffy (Judy Davis), across the desert in his Rolls Royce when it breaks down. Luckily they are able to get towed to a local mechanic where he does a band-aid fix to get the car running without the proper part.  Against the advice of the mechanic, Harry insists on taking his chances crossing the desert.  Again the car breaks down and he and his wife are forced to spend the night in the car. Unable to sleep, Buffy sees a light in the distance and walks toward it. She discovers the self-built home of Boy (River Phoenix) and asks for his assistance.

Boy is Native American, a widower, lives only with his dog, and only minimally interacts with other humans when he travels to the reservation town to get supplies. In getting to know Buffy he becomes smitten by her. This attraction causes friction between him and Harry. Boy simultaneously offers aid to the Fisher’s while at the same time he comes-up with excuses for not being able to get them to where they want to go. As time drags on Boy’s behavior becomes more erratic and aggressive towards Harry, and inappropriate and advancing towards Buffy.

Dark Blood is the film River Phoenix was working on when he died. George Sluizer, the director, faced with his own mortality due to a terminal disease, decided to complete the film as best he could. As such, it is important to understand what Sluizer was working with. At the time of Phoenix’s death, all exterior shots had been filmed, and the cast and crew had just moved to Los Angeles in order to film all the interior shots in a studio. Sluizer deals with this missing footage by narrating key story points of what we should be seeing over still photography of the interior sets. Though the idea is admirable, the effect leaves a lot to be desired. By the end of the film you as an audience member are not entirely sure how dangerous Boy actually is. Without Phoenix’s performances of the intimate, emotional, and claustrophobic interior scenes, the edge of the Boy character is lost. Sluizer’s narration is a poor substitute for an actual performance.

That missing intimacy leaves you with an average film that is exists only as a curiosity because of its status of being River Phoenix’s final film. And though Phoenix’s performance is good, he is also miscast. He does not have the same exotic look that a Johnny Depp has that allows you to accept him as Native American. The character would have functioned better if he was a “white-man” that decided to live off the grid and chose to live as a Native American.

Unfortunately, whether judged as a film with no history or as the curiosity that it is, Dark Blood is at best an average film.

Grade = C

PS These are my Top 5 River Phoenix performances: My Own Private Idaho, Running on Empty, Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and Dogfight. Honorable mention, Explorers.

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“Sagrada” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director:  Stefan Haupt

With:  Jordi Bonet i Armengol, Etsuro Sotoo, Anna Huber

Sagrada  begins by giving you the history of the cathedral and its original architect, Antoni Gaudi.  The cathedral has been under construction in Barcelona for over 100 years, beginning in 1882, and it is currently half complete.  We are then brought to the present with the introduction of the current architect, Jordi Boneti, as well as such artisans as sculptor Etsuro Sotoo.  Through them we learn of their passion for the project, passion for their faith, and passion for Gaudi’s original intent.

We are academically introduced to the different areas of the cathedral and what they represent.  We are also introduced to the present challenges facing the church:  an underground subway extension that may weaken its foundation, a principal facade that was meant to be viewed across an open green space that now has apartment buildings in front of it because at one time in the past the city opened the land up for development.

But though we are given interesting bits of information and talking-head interviews of why certain people are involved, the documentary never connects with you.  The experience of watching the film leaves you detached from the subject matter.  You leave the theatre not really caring about what you saw.  Sagrada also leaves you without crucial pieces of information.  Though the church functions as a Roman Catholic Basilica, the Catholic Church is not paying for its construction.  Where does the private financing come from?  Why can’t we meet those people who care so much for its completion they give of their own funds to help make it end?

Also, whether you like its aesthetic or not, there is no denying the cathedral is architecturally interesting.  Instead of giving us visually interesting ways of showing us the church, Haupt’s presentation is fairly pedestrian.

In the end, Sagrada is meant for only those with a great interest in Architecture.  And even those audience members may have to stifle a yawn or two.

Grade = C-

Click on image to view trailer.  (In German)

Click on image to view trailer. (In German)

“Oma & Bella” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director:  Alexa Karolinski

With:  Regina (Oma) Karolinski and Bella Katz

Oma & Bella are two holocaust survivors living in Berlin telling their life story to Oma’s granddaughter, Alexa–the director.  They share their stories while they cook, shop for food, and gather with friends and family over large meals.  Both lost most of their families during the War and survived their husbands.  Though they each have their own apartment, Bella has decided to stay with Oma in order to help take care of her due to recent medical issues.  As we explore their daily lives we learn about them, the difficulties they faced, and how they have come through it stronger–and happy–people.

The tone of the documentary if light and inquisitive.  Oma & Bella’s interactions are like those of an old married couple.  They’ve known each other so long and know each other so well, they know how to support each other emotionally as well as bring each other down when they are a little too full of themselves.  The drawback of this tone is much of the dark history they experienced is not revealed.

Oma & Bella visit the graves of those that have gone before them, and they express their love and loss for their family members who parished in the Holocaust, but the raw emotion of what they felt and experienced is never brought to the fore.  Oma & Bella’s natural wish not to revisit such horrible memories coupled with the directors natural inclination not to cause her grandmothers distress created a barrier to press a question or a point about their past.  The closest we get to a real revelation is when Bella volunteers the Russians allowed the freed prisoners from German camps in and near Berlin three days of anarchy to get their revenge.  Karolinski does ask Bella if she indeed killed anyone in retribution.  Bella pauses before answering “no,” but her obtuse follow-up leads you to believe she witnessed and did not interfere with such acts of retribution.  Another filmmaker not incumbered with familial ties would have pressed for more information.

Another niggling detail from the documentary is the unclarity of how often they cooked such large  meals.  The sheer volume of food depicted being purchased and cooked is impossible for two elderly women to consume on a daily basis, and yet the film leads you to believe it was a daily occurrence.

Oma & Bella is a sweet film that unfortunately leaves you wanting more at the end.

Grade = C

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“Casting By” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director: Tom Donahue

With: Marion Dougherty, Lynn Stalmaster, Taylor Hackford, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and everybody and their mother

At the beginning of Casting By Martin Scorsese states that 90% of directing is casting, and because of this we learn that the Directors Guild of America is the bane of the casting profession’s life.

Though the documentary is nominally about casting directors, it is really about Marion Dougherty. Dougherty started in New York working in television and ended in Los Angeles as the head of casting for Warner Brothers until 2002. Along the way she created her own casting company and mentored many future greats in the profession.

Her eye for talent and seeing the diamond in the rough was uncanny. Actors such as Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Ed Asner, Anne Bancroft, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, and others appeared on her 3″x5″ index cards with quick one-line comments, and all received their first break because of her. She championed these actors as well as James Dean and Robert Duvall when others wanted to pass on them.

The style of the documentary is talking-head interviews with the occasional scene from famous films.  Dougherty was able to be interviewed before she succumbed to the dementia effect of Alzheimer’s, and unfortunately never saw the completed documentary before she passed away.  What comes across from the interviews is the appreciation for her talent and skill from the artists, and the affection of those casting directors who worked for her and who she mentored.

The main surprise from the documentary is the antagonism of directors against the casting profession.  The film does not shy away from the innate sexism involved with the friction between the two professions:  directors are predominately male and casting professionals are predominately female.  Taylor Hackford has to be grudgingly commended for going on record with is views–backed by the Directors Guild–about why directors put down casting professionals.  Though cinematographers are now called Directors of Photography, the DGA prevents the term casting director from being used. Though the director makes the ultimate choice on the final edit of a film, costumes used, art design, etc., all professions with their own Academy Awards, there is no Oscar for Casting.  And even though there was a concerted effort to award Marion Dougherty an honorary Oscar that was backed not only by actors but also directors such as Spielberg and Scorsese, the DGA fought against the Oscar and she never received it.

Ultimately, cineofiles will most appreciate this documentary.  The behind-the-scenes stories of actors and other Hollywood professionals are great to listen to.  Though there is enough in the film to hold the uninitiateds attention, a casual viewer may be left wondering what the big deal is.

Grade = B

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.

“Magic Camp” (2012) – MIFF – Review


Director:  Judd Ehrlich

With:  Derrin Berger, Lucas Black, Jonah Conlin, Zach Ivins, and Zoe Reiches

Did you know there is a one week magic camp during the summer that has had the likes of David Blain and David Copperfield attend?  Did you know this camp takes place in a castle on a university campus?  Did you know the kids that go to this camp are really good?

Magic Camp is a cute documentary about kids who truly love magic and why they love it.  We follow a number of students through their days at the camp as they practice their trade.  Though their ages vary from twelve to seventeen, all the kids are accomplished and dedicated.  Jonah Conlin is the youngest and dyslexic.  Zoe Reiches wants to prove women are more than just assistants.  Zach Ivins wants to bring his faith into his act.  Reed Spool is the returning champion who is thinking about dropping-out of school to pursue his career full-time.  And Julian Rosenblum is a self-taught magician who made his own website, and has been booked to perform at bar and bat mitzvah.

What we quickly learn is Magic Camp is no joke.  Pressure and homesickness quickly cause Julian to go home.  Reed Spool is called-out by the instructors for coasting on his previous year’s accomplishments and not giving it his all.  These young magicians are treated with respect and treated as professionals.  They are given hard criticisms and aid to help improve their performances.  By the end you truly want them to succeed and grow.

The weakness of the film is in not strictly focusing on the principal students and their interactions with the instructors.  An argument could be made the filmmakers should only have focused on two of the four finalist in order for us to experience more of the camp and how it affected the participants.  You leave wishing you had learned a more about the kids.

But you will also leave impressed with the dedication and skill of these kids.  Though not as well made as a comparable documentary such as Wordplay, you feel better for having watched it.

Grade = B-

Click on image to view trailer

Click on image to view trailer

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” (2013) – MIFF – Review


Director:  Morgan Neville

With:  Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Gloria Jones, Mick Jagger, Lou Adler, David Bowie

Twenty Feet from Stardom begins with one of the best opening credits sequences used in a documentary and proceeds to get better from there.  As great back-up vocals play from classic songs, still images from concert performances appear on the screen with the lead vocalist obscured while the camera focuses on the other singers.  From here we are introduced to back-up singers past and present, and learn their stories.

As the film progresses you quickly understand the importance of the back-up singers.  You realize the parts of songs you eventually sing along to while you listen are those parts the back-up singers perform.  You also learn some songs cannot function without them.  What is Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones without the female vocal?

When Brown Sugar was originally recorded in 1969, Merry Clayton–an accomplished and well-known back-up singer–was called during the night to come into the studio for some British group called the Rolling somethings.  She came in her night robe, with rollers in her hair, and a few months pregnant.  By the end of that night one of the greatest Rock-n-Roll songs of all time was brought to life.  Later Clayton would tour with Jagger reprising her role–not in rollers.  That honor presently belongs to Lisa Fisher, considered to be the greatest back-up singer working today.  Since 1989, when the Stones go on tour so does she.

Through interviews with the vocalist themselves, lead singers they have worked with, and people in the industry we learn what makes these singers great, but we also learn why they can’t cross those twenty feet:  some by choice, some unable to connect to the audience, and some that cannot take the pressure.  The story of there success, failures, and in some instance their comebacks is captivating.  Though the beginning of the third act returns to a repetitive formula used in the beginning of the second act, you forgive the film because the singers hold your attention.

Twenty Feet from Stardom introduces you to a rich world of very talented people who truly deserve your attention.  The power these singers bring to the songs you know and love is brought front and center.

Grade = A-

PS  Darlene Love was at the screening during the Miami International Film Festival and belted a great rendition of Lean on Me.  You can watch the video here.  My apologies for the poor audio; it was recorded on my phone.

PPS  Twenty Feet from Stardom will have a wide release starting June 22.

Click on image to view Sundance song performance.

Click on image to view Sundance song performance.