Gems 2016, a mini-film festival of sorts by Miami-Dade College’s Miami Film Festival, is now underway at the Tower Theater in Miami. It kicked off Thursday with a celebratory rock ‘n’ roll documentary (The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America sets celebratory tone for GEMS opening night in Miami), but now come a series of screenings featuring a variety of foreign and American independent films. There are two films Independent Ethos would like to recommend while also providing fair warning as to their tones and content. Below you will find brief reviews of Certain Women and Old Stone.
It’s rare when a film’s drama is as cohesive and unrelentingly a downward spiral as that of Old Stone, a strong feature debut by Chinese writer-director Johnny Ma. It follows hapless taxi driver, Lao Shi (Gang Chen), whose will to do what is right ruins his life. The film’s nemesis is “procedure,” a dehumanizing kind of bureaucracy that undermines Lao’s attempts to follow it correctly after he makes one wrong move in the chain of the process while trying to do good.
After he accidentally crashes into a man on a scooter, Lao races him to the hospital before the police arrive, which inadvertently makes him responsible for the hospital bills. With a creepy atonal score by Lee Sanders featuring foreboding trance gongs and keenly placed flashforwards to a spookily waving forest, Ma knows how to ratchet the tension with cinematic techniques. Chen, meanwhile, plays our hero with a quiet inner torment that inspires profound empathy, even when he is pushed to the edge of his own humanity.
Intense and grim with a strong command of cinematic storytelling, Ma never relents as the dominoes begin to fall with one frustrating plot twist after another. He delivers with background action as well, when people yell or complain about money, against the noise of industrial progress on the capitalist/communist streets of China. Old Stone is a fearsome film that builds to a still shocking if seemingly hopeless finale that sucks the irony out of inevitability.
Old Stone plays GEMS Friday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 15, 9 p.m.
Miami born writer-director Kelly Reichardt is not known for overt film narratives, and with Certain Women, her sixth feature, some film goers may find it a challenge to find the drama behind the downplayed victories of the titular women. Based on the short stories of Maile Meloy, the film follows three loosely connected stories featuring women (Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone) asserting themselves for slight moments of growth in the face of cinematically downplayed confrontations.
Reichardt mutes a music score for the wind or distant train horns in this small town world of Middle America. The actresses at the center of the story expertly transmit inner tension with little external drama to give the film that slight, conflicted and very human quality of daily imperfection in the face of trying to make plans. The most poignant and resonant scenes may be those featuring Gladstone’s character, working alone on a horse ranch. With light humor and patience, the viewer learns the drudgery of her work in the face of prejudiced charms of working with horses, which is brought up by her crush, played by Stewart with unvarnished quiescence.
Behind the film’s own seeming inertia lies a critique of patriarchal society that is ineffective and powerless against the wills of these women. Reichardt’s style is genius in the face of this, resisting what casual film goers have come to expect of movie entertainment. Reichhart is liberating the viewer of such constraints to celebrate not only what is essential in the characters but what is essential in the viewer’s own humanity.
Certain Women plays GEMS Saturday, Oct. 15, at 3:30 p.m.
Certain Women image courtesy of IFC Films and Old Stone image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films. The Miami Film Festivals provided preview screenings for the purpose of these capsule reviews.