Highlights from The Key West Film Festival 2018

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‘Brothers in Arms’ panel discussion. Photo courtesy Key West Film Festival.

We paid a visit to the Key West Film Festival once again, and yet again it featured some major movies by notable auteurs riding a wave of buzz ahead of award season. The festival opened with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and closed with Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, two strong independent movies supported by major distributors that you’ll be hearing about into next year. Let’s begin with the best of these two.

I left the festival with all kinds of deep feelings for the closing night movie directed by Jenkins, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Moonlight, which also won Best Picture in 2017. While I loved and appreciated Moonlight, a film of cinematic poetry, If Beale Street Could Talk, the first ever adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, is even better. Nicholas Britell’s marvelous score haunted me after walking out of the screening. With that came the memory of the images and the soft-spoken, sometimes passionate acting by a cast led by newcomers (a legit breakthrough performance by KiKi Layne alongside a soul-stirring co-lead performance by Stephan James). Then there are the film’s warm images shot by James Laxton that once again reveal the strong influence of Wong Kar Wai on Jenkins. It’s all woven together in a carefully oscillating narrative of two story lines about the characters at different places in their young lives: falling in love and harnessing that love to stay together despite a jail stint for one of those characters.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the only major feature film this year besides Annihilation that I consider perfection. That means it took nearly a full year and over 200 movies before I came across a film that shone with such adeptness. I think the marvel of this film is how it seamlessly flows between those two different time periods for a young black couple In early 1970s Harlem. It’s light of touch and filled with ease. We spend time with Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James) and Tish Rivers (Layne) as their romance blossoms and while Hunt is jailed for a crime he did not commit. As Tish does what she can to clear his name she also carries his baby. The film glides between time frames on what feels like a cloud of Britell’s, ethereal, dream-like music. The film actually flows like a piece of music. Jenkins is said to have instructed Britell to capture “What Love Sounds Like.” If this movie doesn’t see Jenkins nominated for an Oscar or winning again, then you know the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is just a game the movie business plays. A South Florida theatrical release date is still in the works, but it is rumored to be either Christmas Day or January.

On the other side of the fest was the opening film: Roma. I had the chance to see it just before opening night during a critic’s screening in Miami. It stands as an impressive work of auteurism. Cuarón wrote, directed, shot and co-edited the movie. You don’t often see credits like that on a major picture. On the other hand, it feels so personal as to come across as self-involved. While watching some of the tracking shots across intimate, often mundane spaces, one wonders whether that could have been toned down some in order to leave some impact for scenes the truly feel to merit it. This is the downside of auteur filmmaking.

The film takes place in 1971 Mexico City and follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a nanny/maid to a middle class family in a neighborhood referred to as Roma. She lives in a small walkup apartment located at the back of a large house with the family’s cook, Adela (Nancy García García). Both are indigenous and speak a mixture of Spanish and Mixtec. Cleo has her hands full with the light-skinned, almost Aryan looking family of three boys, a young girl, husband and wife and the wife’s mother. This family is based on Cuarón’s very own, including Cleo. In an interview with Vanity Fair he says the film is 90 percent based on his experiences as a child. He even gathered up his family’s original furniture to decorate the sets.

As personal film a film that it is, its intimacy is handled with this sweeping scale that makes the mundane story seem grand. Roma was shot in ultra widescreen with digital ALEXA 65 cameras, and the film is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Cuarón uses tracking shots inside the house, as Cleo tends to the varied needs of the children and their mother (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother (Verónica García). Dad (Fernando Grediaga) is hardly around and slips out of the picture early on, leaving mom desperately depressed. Meanwhile, Cleo ends up pregnant by her crush, who also abandons her. With the widescreen images and carefully composed mise-en-scène, Cuarón brings epic scale to those life-defining moments that are impossible to shake. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s jaw-dropping, and key to experience on the big screen.

To think this is a Netflix film, where you can expect many viewers will watch the movie on their phones if not iPads or laptops, is a bit of a sacrilege to such a presentation and will most likely diminish the film’s inconsistent impact. On top of that, the sound mix is Dolby Atmos, so this is above all a theatrical experience, though maybe you could approximate it with a 5.1 surround system. Netflix has gone out of its way to trickle Roma out into theaters before its streaming debut on Dec. 14. It is currently now playing theatrically in Miami exclusively at the Landmark at Merrick Park.

The following morning of the festival, I had to catch up on my laptop with Brothers in Arms, a documentary about the filming of Oliver Stone’s Platoon from the perspective of its cast, including Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, who was present at the festival. Berenger and I had an appointment to speak before the festival’s premiere of the documentary. We met at a cafe a few blocks off Duval Street where we were joined by one of the military advisers on Platoon, Mark Ebenhoch. Ebenhoc also had a small role as a soldier in Platoon and helped with the shoot of Brothers in Arms. He also lives on Big Pine Key, in the Middle Keys area. Berenger bought the cappuccinos, and we sat together for an hour reminiscing as I drew reactions from Berenger about some scenes in the documentary he hadn’t seen yet.

You can read my interview with him in the Miami New Times by jumping through this headline:

Tom Berenger on the “Tough” Scene That Still Haunts Him in Platoon

Brothers in Arms was directed and written by Paul Sanchez, the actor who played Doc in Stone’s movie. He was also present at the festival, but he was still on the road during our interview. He was, however, present to introduce the movie before taking part in a Q&A afterward with Ebenhoch, actors James Terry McIlvain (who played Ace), Bob Orwig (Gardner), Corey Glover (Francis) and of course there was also Berenger. During the Q&A, Edith Thomas (credited in the film as Li Thi Van) joined the panel. She played the girl who Berenger’s ruthless Sgt. Barnes terrorized with a gun to her head in the movie. It was an event that shook the actor profoundly. When we spoke, Berenger said it only took two takes, but Stone’s request for real tears still bothers him to this day. Her appearance on stage was a big surprise planned by the others, and it brought tears to Berenger’s eyes.

Tom Berenger (left) with Mark Ebenhoch. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The documentary is an interesting throwback to the 1986 movie that made stars of many of the actors. To hear them talk about their experiences with such detail after all these years speaks to the quality of their continued friendship and shows how indebted they are to Stone, even if the gig was sometimes quite hellish. They were, after all, forced to live in the jungle for three weeks with real military people who deprived them of sleep and only gave them pouches of “meals ready to eat” for sustenance. The documentary is filled with enough vintage images and interesting talking heads like Depp and Dafoe that it will inspire viewers to rewatch Platoon. Brothers in Arms is available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and other such services. At the end of the festival, it won the Audience Award at the fest.

The critics also had their own award to give at the end of the festival. A colleague at the Florida Film Critics Circle joined for the first time this year, Ruben Rosario who writes for Miami Art Zine and Punch Drunk Movies. Other first-time critics included Monica Castillo of Rogerebert.com, La Times film critic Justin Chang, Alicia Malone of Film Struck and TCM. Her new book, The Female Gaze, had just been released, and finally there was also Emily Yoshida of New York Magazine and Vulture. Returning critics included David Fear of Rolling Stone, Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York, Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks of the Lincoln Center and Eric Kohn of Indiewire, who also led a discussion on film criticism during the festival with all of us.

When we deliberated Saturday night it was a pretty tough debate between two Asian films by two directors with strong filmographies who both showed up this year at the top of their game. One movie was Burning by Lee Chang Dong, a film I reviewed for the Miami New Times earlier this year, and the other was Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda. In the film, Kirin Kiki, who we lost this year, plays the matriarch of a band of thieves and con artists living together in the slums of Tokyo and passing as a family. When the ringleader (Franky Lily) of the group finds a 4-year-old girl (Sasaki Miyu) crying on her apartment building balcony with signs of abuse and her parents screaming inside, he decides to take her into their fold, which includes a young boy and two other women. They’re a motley crew but yet support one another in a world of twisted morals. During a beach day for the six of them, the eldest notes, “Sometimes it is best to pick your own family.”

The dynamic relationship between this bunch allows for moving insight into what it means to be a family, a theme that has long been an obsession of Kore-eda. This film, however, is as precise as he has ever been. When the dominoes of this makeshift family’s sham existence fall, revealing their way of crime to the authorities, the audience is forced to consider what defines a family: biological bonds or the bonds of circumstance. As usual, Kore-eda’s film creeps up on the viewer over a somewhat languorous pace, sticking the landing with well-earned, warm-hearted devastation.

Shoplifters won the Palme d’or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In that light, our critics jury debated whether another prize would matter so much for Kore-eda. The other film that came close, Burning, was a huge critic’s darling, however, but it didn’t unanimously impress our group. It was to our relief when we later learned Burning would go on to win the audience award for best foreign language film at the festival, an award I had the honor to present alongside Malone. In Miami, Shoplifters is now playing at the MDC Tower Theater and will open at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Dec. 14.

I also participated on another jury judging student films. The festival has long celebrated student and up-and-coming filmmakers alongside the big names. I was especially impressed with all four of the documentaries submitted for consideration, but only one could win. “Rene De Dios & the South Beach Shark Club” by MDC student Robert Requejo Ramos topped the others. It’s about a time when you could fish for sharks at the end of a now demolished concrete pier on South Beach. On stage, Ramos promised that a feature version was in the works. In the narrative contest, congratulations went to “Woke” by University of Miami student Kimberly Aleah, who directed and wrote the short based on a story by Ronnie Braithwaite. It’s a smart little film about race relations through the lens of a fraternity initiation.

Before closing this rumination on the highlights of the Key West Film Festival this year, I also feel compelled to recognize a few more documentaries I caught at the festival, which has always done so well in programming the genre. The Last Race, about the end of Stock Car racing on Long Island, was a brilliant observational experience. Despite a distant cinéma vérité-like camera, the film still captures a sort of reverence for its subjects. It doesn’t seek to be intimate, yet it is.

The Gospel of Eureka is as all over the place as the remarkable people in the unique Arkansas town for which the documentary is named. Directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri play with irony and give as much regard to the Christian faith as they do the openness of the queer culture that is so essential to defining the people living in this town. There is room for opposing voices and acceptance of opposing views. It is a film full of hope and humor even in the face of one sick character’s demise.

Finally, but not leastly, there was Bisbee ‘17, a documentary about the deportation of almost 2,000 immigrants by sheriff’s deputies and residents of the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, under the “law of necessity.” It’s a disturbing film yet an incredible practice in empathy, as, 100 years later, the town dramatizes what happened there.

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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