Miami Film Festival GEMS presents movies to watch out for come Oscar time

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Photo by Kai Sacco

I just finished a long weekend watching premieres of movies that will slowly roll out as possible Oscar contenders come next year. In total, I caught eight out of 19 movies screened at the fifth edition of Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival GEMS. Besides one exception, all the films I saw were worthwhile experiences. Some I’d even consider among the best of 2018. I watched four in advance of the festival, reviewing three for Miami New Times (What to See and What to Skip at Miami Film Festival Gems 2018) and sharing one review in advance here (Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife gives actors space). During the film festival, I caught an additional four films. Below you will find a recap of that experience.

One of the first things I did, however, was participate on a film critics panel with fellow Florida Film Critics Circle members Juan Barquin (Miami New Times, Dim the House Lights), Ruben Rosario (Miami Art Zine) and Alfred Soto (Humanizing the Vacuum) following the Florida premiere of Burning. That’s us above with Miami Film Festival programmer and panel moderator Lauren Cohen. I felt the conversation went well and at least stirred up more questions in the audience than they may have already had. One hopes the film might see a theatrical release in Miami, but there’s no news to report on that front just yet (UPDATE: The Coral Gables Art Cinema will sow it during its winter season). If so, I hope to expand my review, which I originally wrote for the Miami New Times and was too brief to really capture what the film explores. It is, however, slated to open in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 26.

In the meantime, let’s cut to some short capsule reviews of movies I caught during the festival. Many of which have some sort theatrical roll out planned. If not, one has already appeared on MUBI, so you can at least expect them to make an appearance on streaming platforms. That said, any dates noted below could change in the future.

Ben is Back

Courtesy Roadside Attractions

Arriving just in time for Christmas is Ben is Back, a commentary on the opioid crisis in middle America. The film, written and directed by Peter Hedges, may very well be the biggest downer of a holiday movie that could ever see release around Christmas. The movie is tightly focused around a single family but never fails to bring in the bigger picture: doctors over-prescribing pain killers, the lack of support from the government or the industry that still dispenses highly addictive opioids to treat pain and death.

Lucas Hedges, the director’s son, plays Ben, who dips out of a rehab facility to surprise his mom (Julia Roberts) for Christmas. Though she is a mixed bag of conflict (Roberts does a marvelous job bounding between skeptical joy and concerned dread upon his arrival), his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and step dad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) have been here before and hardly see his Christmas Eve arrival as a good omen. His step — possibly half — siblings (Mia Fowler, Jakari Fraser), not to mention their tiny mutt of a rescue (Nigel), are however, overjoyed with Ben’s return in their innate naivete.

Though staidly shot with hardly a surprising visual, the film benefits from its focus and several strong performances. Her character full of passionate, bad decision-making, Roberts is excellent in a dynamic role as the mother who will always love her junkie son. Hedges is also strong as a young man filled with self-doubt trying to put on a brave face with full awareness of the skepticism around him. Newton, it is worth noting, brings particular heart to her small supporting role. There’s also some surprising moments of humor about the darkness that overcasts a Christmastime movie unlike any such holiday movie before it. Ben is Back will see theatrical release on Dec. 7.

Everybody Knows

There was one audible boo that brought a stop to the applause that followed the Florida premiere of Everybody Knows. Based on what was heard within this writer’s immediate surroundings after the screening and later in an elevator, this vocal dissenter wasn’t alone in noting the weakness of this movie. This is a particular shame considering it’s by two-time Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Everybody Knows marks his first foray into filmmaking with a language that wasn’t his own. The only way this movie is recognizable as a Farhadi film is his concern for family, a subdued color palette of browns, reds, and blues and its length. Too long, in this case. Otherwise, the story meandered emptily toward a couple of not very surprising revelations.

Courtesy Focus Features

Filled with famous faces of Spanish cinema (Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Bárbara Lennie and Ricardo Darín to name a few), the movie feels like a weak attempt at a soap opera. It drags along at the start, introducing this extended family and their friends crawling toward an incident while hardly hinting at these characters’ complicated relationships. Meanwhile, there’s a budding flirty friendship between Irene (Carla Campra), the daughter of Laura (Cruz) and Alejandro (Darin), and a handsome young local. By the time the suspense kicks in you are hardly invested. Then it grows into a family drama of grudges. By the time you are there, the twists and revelations are either predictable or eye-rollingly dull.

The problem may be that Farhadi, who is also credited with writing the script, is not a Spanish director. It’s therefore no surprise that most of the Spanish-speaking audience in attendance revolted against the film, complaining about its poor quality. Some even seemed offended by it. But it also boils down to storytelling, and this was a sloppy example that hardly fits with the filmmaker’s past achievements. Focus Features is handling this movie in the U.S., but the studio has not yet settled on a theatrical release date. They don’t even have a trailer yet.

Petra

Speaking of Spanish soap operas, the film by Catalan director Jaime Rosales, Petra, actually gets it quite right. It’s a testament to the filmmaker, working with many non-actors, that a rather cathartic yet vicious twist arriving toward the end of this rather languid, carefully paced film was met with several cheers. Again, the screening mostly featured a Spanish audience.

Courtesy Film Factory

The movie also featured Bárbara Lennie, who came to the festival to receive this year’s Precious Gem award before an interview on stage with the Tower’s Theater’s director Nicolas Calzada, ahead of the film’s Florida theatrical premiere. She plays the film’s titular role of a young artist beginning a mentorship with Jaume (Joan Botey), a commercially successful sculptor. As Petra gets to know first his wife Marisa (Marisa Paredes) and then his son Lucas (Alex Brendemühl), a picture of a family where love has died long ago starts to form.

Rosales shot his sixth feature on a ranch owned by Botey, who has never acted before but does a spectacular job as the film’s cruel and cynical villain. The film’s title alludes to Greek mythology, and the movie plays out like a Greek tragedy with DP Hélène Louvart’s omniscient, distant and drifting camera putting the audience in the role of the observant chorus. Spicing up the ominous proceedings further is the moody choral score by Kristian Eidnes Andersen. It’s a powerful film that unfortunately has no U.S. distributor, so who knows if it will return to the U.S. in anything more than part of film festivals, but hopefully it will reappear on a streaming channel.

Capernaum (Chaos)

In her stunning third feature as a director and screenwriter, Lebanese actor-writer-director Nadine Labaki turns her focus from the lives of women in the Middle Eastern country — the subjects of her previous movies — toward the most disenfranchised of Beirut’s slums: street children. The film’s title, Capernaum, translates to “Chaos” in English. It features two kids who have never appeared in a movie before, one 12 and the other just 2 years old. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) learn to make due after Yonas’ mother, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian immigrant Zain befriends while killing time at the amusement park where she works, is caught by the authorities.

It’s a grim film the depicts the perils of unaccompanied minors at every turn, from the rumble of traffic to adults who would take advantage. Some may consider this film “poverty porn,” a derisive term describing movies with raw representations of social concern. However, this movie has roots that go beyond that smug bit of alliteration critics like drop in reviews of movies that make them uncomfortable. As the film follows the charming Zain, it recalls the feisty guttersnipe dramas of Bicycle Thieves and Pixote.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

We first meet 12-year-old Zain cuffed and on trial for stabbing a man. What drove him to the act will break your heart. The only misstep is when Labaki feels a need to amp up the drama with overly-dramatic mournful string music by Khaled Mouzanar. Zain’s situation is sad enough and presented with raw, handheld camera work and performances that feel so real, one might confuse scenes for documentary work.

Capernaum has distribution with Sony Pictures Classics, so you can expect to see it in theaters. It’s scheduled for a Miami release next year, Jan.25. If you’re in New York or Los Angeles, you’ll be able to see it by Dec. 14. It arrived to GEMS out of the Cannes Film Festival with the Jury Prize and as Lebanon’s official entry for the 2019 Academy Awards, so you can expect best foreign language film buzz for this movie into the Oscars. At this festival it proved to be a real crowd pleaser, despite all the weeping heard in the theater. It won the Gigi Guermont Audience Award.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2018 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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