This year’s Miami Film Festival GEMS felt like a low-key affair compared to previous versions. It began with one of the festival’s best movies, for sure, but with no guests. Call Me By Your Name was a delightful, expertly crafted film that played with the blurry lines of a passionate love story, not just with gender but in the give and take between two halves of a relationship. After the film, the opening night party happened at the tightly packed lobby of Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater, the venue that plays annual host to the event. For those in the mood for Italian food after a movie about a summer tryst in Italy, it was there for the taking, though it could take five minutes to grab a small plate of meatballs and pasta in the crowded lobby. The closing night meal, meanwhile, was actually a Sunday brunch, with the festival’s biggest guest, the Spanish director Lino Escalera. His first feature, Can’t Say Goodbye, screened on Sunday, at 5 p.m.
During the festival, there was another food event before Saturday’s screening of Son of Sofia. There was also a seminar for those seeking insight into the industry with Miami-based Haitian American filmmakers Edson Jean and Joshua Jean-Baptiste. In “Don’t Take Yes for an Answer,” Edson, Joshua and Festival director Jaie Laplante discussed the filmmaking duo’s journey from shooting no-budget online episodes that won the $25,000 Project Greenlight Digital Studios contest to working on a new Miami-set project that inspired them. Finally, throughout the festival, the second floor of the Tower allowed for a “Virtual Reality Escape,” featuring four shorts in 360 degrees by directed by Los Angeles-based, Puerto Rican artist and filmmaker Angel Manuel Soto.
At the end of the event, The Leisure Seeker won the Gigi Guermont Audience Award. Starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as a couple road-tripping to the Hemingway House in Key West and rediscovering their love, the film was added at the last minute to the lineup. Its ticket sales went to United Way of the Florida Keys to aid in the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund. It has distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, so you should be able to catch it in theaters soon.
As for what this writer saw during GEMS — baring one movie — everything was at least good to very good, though nothing blew my mind. I caught five features of the 15 movies screened during the festival and two more as on-line previews to review for the Miami New Times. For a change this year, and to the detriment of the presentation of these films available to preview, there were no theatrical advance screenings for critics ahead of the festival. You can read my New Times reviews by jumping through the headline below:
Finally, below, what follows are brief reviews of what I caught during the festival. I provide theatrical release information where available, as all these movies should be coming to theaters soon.
Call Me By Your Name
For this writer, the festival commenced with what might have been the event’s most entertaining and transporting film, Call Me By Your Name. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by the legendary James Ivory, who adapted the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, the film is exquisitely shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom with an often ingeniously timed use of piano-heavy classical music score featuring Bach and Debussy, among others. At the heart of the film is an American graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer, wielding dashing nonchalance to utmost charm) on archeological research in Italy and the student’s host professor’s 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a sexually confident teen with the ladies who falls to emotional pieces when he crushes hard on Oliver. It’s 1983 and everything moves a little slower in this time, yet the two-hour and 12-minute movie never feels as though it drags.
A love like this does not happen in a vacuum. The charms of the blossoming relationship includes misunderstandings, serendipitous meetings, playful teasing and sincere expression of feelings. The two leads show an ease with it that is both casual and intense. Two young women are in the periphery, but the passion is with the two males, and it’s a passion that takes time to build — until well over halfway through the movie. The film’s playfulness is augmented by charming piano melodies that appear to accompany immaterial scenes, often preceding a calm tracking shot to reveal the grandiosity of the European summer home Oliver is guest in or even a courtyard where a majestic tree overtakes the background, as the pair explore the center of town together.
There’s a lot of hype about the presence of a couple of Sufjan Stevens songs that are used to accompany the narrative. However, the film doesn’t work so well when it ratchets up the emotions with these songs during montage sequences. It turns these moments into a kind of glorified music video and says more about Guadagnino’s love for the songs than the love at the center of the film. If there is one song that works better at enhancing the film’s charms is the recurring appearance of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” and Oliver’s obsessive dancing to it. It also allows for insight into understanding the differences between Oliver and Elio. For Oliver, fun and frivolity trumps a relationship, something that will ultimately break Elio’s heart.
Call Me By Your Name is scheduled to open in South Florida on December 22.
My Friend Dahmer
My Friend Dahmer was the second film I was able to catch at the festival. Though it is about infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, its focus is not on the murders, rapes, necrophilia and cannibalism he committed between 1978 and 1991. This movie, directed by Marc Meyers and based on the graphic novel by Dahmer’s high school friend Derf Backderf, is focused on the killer’s high school years, when he became obsessed with dissecting road kill and later upgraded to household pets. For the squeamish, no killings, be it animal or human happen onscreen. However, we do see Dahmer (played by an impressive Ross Lynch) handling dead animals with an odd social disconnect. There’s also a distant, out of focus shot of a mutilated dog’s body.
The filmmakers, though, are not interested in exploiting this man’s pre-homicidal tendencies as much as revealing the background that might have encouraged them. From parents clueless about raising children to schoolmates who could never relate and teachers who never noticed, high school Dahmer becomes an object of pathos. Of course, Meyers never allows the audience off the hook, either. He uses extremely dark humor throughout the film and a color palette to represent the 1970s heightened in a manner out of a Wes Anderson movie. This is fantasia based on a horrific reality.
If there is one part of the movie that drags it’s ironically when Dahmer turns a true antisocial corner into the psychopathic tendencies of no return. The little bit of humanity that was once an awkward high school kid desperately looking to fit in with self-deprecating, sad shenanigans slips away. Once the boy is gone, there’s little to latch on to. This also, however, speaks to the careful line walked during the first three-quarters of the movie. With Lynch giving a powerful performance alongside a supporting cast that also includes an impressive Anne Heche as his distant, foul-mouthed, drug-abusing mother, there is still a lot that will hold the brave viewer’s attention.
The Tower Theater will host My Friend Dahmer’s exclusive Miami premiere theatrical run beginning Nov. 10.
French director Laurent Cantet hit a career highpoint with his Palme d’Or winning film The Class. His social consciousness never felt more earthy and entertaining while maintaining a complex and genuine feel. It’s a balance that is hard to achieve. Evidence of that lies in a film that bears comparison, his latest, The Workshop. It was also co-written by The Class co-screenwriter, Robin Campillo. The characters are vivid in their diversity and viewpoints, but it’s the extremes to which one character goes that compromises and even cheapens the complex drama the film is driven by.
It takes place in La Ciotat, a town on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille. A diverse mix of young students gather for a creative writing workshop under the guidance of prominent crime novelist Olivia Dejazet (Marina Foïs). The workshop is supposed to make them more employable in a town where jobs have been lost over time. A shipyard once used to build giant cargo ships now only builds the occasional expensive yacht. The layers of resentment, nostalgia, class conflict, ideological and religious differences are intricately on display with same earthy confrontations that made the The Class so intriguing. The filmmakers are very aware of the current tensions, as even the Bataclan massacre comes up as one of the subjects under consideration by the participants of the workshop.
One participant, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), however, shows extremist tendencies. It’s important to note that he is white and interested in right-wing, nationalist ideals. Though Antoine shows a playful sensitivity to one of his friend’s young sons, he is also the author of some disturbing writing that includes a massacre at the shipyard. Olivia becomes intrigued, but is it to the detriment of her own safety? A gun appears in the drama, and for the most part it’s presence is drawn out enough to become a symbol that speaks to terror and ideology on a complex level, but it becomes less than that when it is used as a deciding factor in a relationship. Is it enough to redeem, or forgive Antoine when the film ends on a hopeful note? This is clearly a complex issue that is shaking up France and other EU states, and deserves a more complex resolution instead of the pat, yet hopeful ending we get.
Strand Releasing picked this film up. It is currently making the festival rounds and there are no theatrical details yet.
Unlike Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, the incredible Force Majeure (Force Majeure asks men to confront manliness in stark but droll narrative — a film review), The Square doesn’t pick at one aspect of the fortunate class. While Force Majeure examined the actions of a father during an avalanche that startled his family while on a ski trip, The Square, takes aim at the art world and the privileged class that dwells in it, not to mention money, sex, family, and art curation. It’s a bit sprawling, and though it lacks the impressive laser focus of Force Majeure, it’s no less entertaining to watch as Christian (Claes Bang), the director of a contemporary art museum, bumbles through tracking down his stolen wallet and cellphone, a casual hook-up with a simpleton arts writer/groupie Anne (Elisabeth Moss), managing his two spoiled young daughters and dealing with fallout with a tasteless marketing campaign for a new exhibit called “The Square.”
Much in this movie is high-pitched. During the drunken hookup with Anne, the wide-eyed, sweat-drenched face of Moss becomes a thing to recoil from for Christian, who guards the contents of his prophylactic with paranoid dread. The man’s daughters bicker among themselves constantly and only seem satiated when Dad takes them on a shopping spree. They only truly calm down when confronted by something fearsome: a young Arab boy who follows them home to yell at Christian that he apologize for his false accusations that he is a thief. It comes about from a knuckle-headed plan by Christian’s assistant (Christopher Læssø) to leave threatening letters at all the apartments in a building that the “find your phone” app led them to.
Class privilege is clearly Östlund’s target here, and that also goes for the intellectual circle, which is mocked through art, from piles of dust neatly lined up in a gallery across a wall with a neon sign that declares “YOU HAVE NOTHING” to a creaky, noisy sculpture of stacked chairs that threatens to drown out a confrontation between Anne and Christian. Then there’s a centerpiece performance by Terry Notary, known for his animalistic motion-capture work as a choreographer and actor in films like Planet of the Apes. He plays Oleg, a performance artist based on Oleg Kulik who put himself on display as a dog in a Stockholm art gallery in 1996 chained next to a sign that stated “dangerous.” Those who got to close were attacked, including a man who Kulik bit. When Oleg stalks his way into a bourgeois sit-down fundraising dinner for the museum, shirtless and on all fours with the help of spring-loaded crutches attached to his arms, he exerts his authority as a gorilla would in the wild. It makes for a scene that plays with the edge of fear and darkness in what should be an absurdist situation. The scene neatly encapsulates the blending of dread and reality for those who think they have found the posh life but have only really found a way to disconnect from the real and most basic issues that make us all human.
Both the Miami Beach Cinematheque and The Tower Theater will host The Square’s for a theatrical run beginning Nov. 10. For screenings in other U.S. locations, visit the film’s official website.
Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars
The festival’s final screening was a Showtime documentary about the legendary Brit-rock guitarist Eric Clapton. In his introduction to the doc, Laplante noted that this is only one of three theatrical screenings for the documentary before it premieres on Showtime in February. As promised, it was a special event for the ears, including those moments when songs like “I Feel Free” and “Layla” burst to life via the tall cinema screen and huge sound system.
But as those looking for true insight into the music across Clapton’s varied career, will have to look elsewhere. Director Lili Fini Zanuck is more interested in examining Clapton’s personal life. In the two-hour-plus documentary, Clapton’s life comes across as a Swiss cheese sort of experience, with career highs and some real gaps of nothingness that overshadow events like his first number one hit, his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” The only big songs, according to this doc, are “Layla” and “Tears in Heaven.” The filmmaker seems more concerned with the substance of a troubled love affair and an expansive addiction to drugs and alcohol, all under the umbrella of a family life that damaged his self-perception at a young age.
Zanuck spends a lot of time on a real life crossroads moment for Clapton when, after consummating an affair with the woman he loved, George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd is given the choice of whom she would go home with. She chose her husband, of course. Clapton, meanwhile, went home to heroine in Surrey. In an effort to win her back, Clapton recorded a masterpiece album under the name Derek and the Dominos at Miami’s Criteria studio. But Zanuck is more concerned with the relationship between tragedy and art. After the “love note” fails to impress Boyd, the documentary wastes no time getting to the next tragedy that affected Clapton’s creativity, the 1992 hit single “Tears in Heaven.” When introducing Clapton’s son Connor — with Italian model Lory Del Santo — the doc jumps to the 4-year-old boy’s tragic 53-story plunge from a New York City hotel window.
The documentary uses only vintage footage, from famous photographs to audience-shot concert footage. Exclusive interviews with Boyd, John Mayall and Clapton himself are all off-screen, which places the film in those past moments to almost suffocating effect. When things turn bright, Clapton finally sobers up, remarries and has several other children. During these happier times, the documentary almost feels like an infomercial, as if Zanuck has become disinterested. Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars is an odd thing because it offers a different perspective on Clapton with little flattery for his past but darkening his success with tragedy, above all.
Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars is scheduled to premiere on Showtime on February 10.