Film Reviews

Miami International Film Festival

With 65 features in this year's Miami International Film Festival, as well as shorts and documentaries, you'd deserve a medal if you caught them all. Festival Director Nicole Guillemet promised to tilt heavily toward Spanish-language or Latin-themed productions, and she has delivered. Spain tops the contributors' list, but there are also films from Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Cuba as well as Hispanic U.S. films. Representing Nuyoricans will be Raising Victor Vargas, while the Dominican hood is the backdrop to Washington Heights. It's not all Spanish, though. There are also films from China, South Korea, Russia, and Poland, and the French will close out the festival with a Juliette Binoche vehicle, Jet Lag. Spain's Carlos Saura, whose film Salomé will be screened, gets honored by the festival with a career achievement tribute.

The festival opens Friday night, February 21, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami and continues through Sunday, March 2, with screenings also at the Regal South Beach Cinema and the Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal in North Miami Beach.Miami residents can remember with emotion the incredible summer of 1994, when thousands of rafts ingeniously fashioned from inner tubes and scraps of wood dotted the seas off South Florida, jammed with human cargo or hauntingly empty. That summer, the members of a crew from Spain's Televisión de Catalunya were in Havana, where they met seven people about to embark under cover of night for the United States. Bosch and Domenech filmed the same Cubans for seven years, following them to the Guantanamo refugee camp and then documenting the turns of their lives in the United States. The result is the masterfully executed and sucker-punch powerful documentary Balseros.

Do not expect a smaltzy, triumphant American dream story that will track these Cubans from living on rations to contentedly slurping cafecitos at La Carreta. In this insightful film, objective and ultimately disturbing on many levels, the rafters' journey to make a new life in the United States can prove at least as horrifying as their perilous crossing of the Straits.

The movie's first scenes in Havana find the Cuban protagonists, painfully thin victims of the Island's post-Soviet "special period," terminally frustrated and desperate to get out. Guillermo wants to join his wife and daughter who live in Miami but cannot get a visa from the U.S. Interests Section. Rafael, who is in search of "a house, a car, and a good woman," is thrown off one raft by a band of delinquents, losing his passage money, before finally embarking on another. Mericys prostitutes herself to "foreigners who aren't my type" to earn the money for materials to build a raft.

In Miami, a Catholic charity organization gives them hand-me-down clothes and a few words of English and sends them off to Connecticut or Arizona. Another man joins a long-lost friend in New York City. It would ruin the film to reveal their fates here. Suffice it to say the happiest ending is that of Guillermo, who finds a job at Office Depot and lives with his reunited family in Miami. This is a tough film that will make you cry, leave you thinking about it for days, and probably cause you to look at some people you see on the streets of South Florida a little differently. -- Judy CantorTwo of the finest actors in current Spanish-language cinema lead the cast of Kamchatka. Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother) and Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens) play a liberal married couple, he an architect, she a college professor, raising a family in 1970s Argentina. Roth, Darín, and the other actors are a pleasure to watch as they create a poignant ensemble piece that feels as intimate as Buenos Aires itself. Kamchatka is worthy for these performances alone, but the story's lack of contextual detail makes it regrettably exclusive. It is a film to be felt deeply by certain generations of Argentines, while those with little knowledge of the country's contemporary past are likely to leave the theater feeling a bit confused.

Kamchatka opens in 1976, when a military regime grips Argentina and students and professionals start to disappear. Fearing for their lives as their friends go missing, the couple quickly take their 10-year-old son (the irresistible Matías del Pozo, who also narrates the movie) and his little brother to a borrowed house in the country. Almost all of the subsequent action in the film takes place within the house, as the parents change the family members' names and struggle to continue their lives, and the children must come to terms with leaving their friends and school behind. (Kamchatka comes from the game Risk, which they play to pass the time.)

At one point, their daily routine is enlivened when they take in an enigmatic university student (Tomás Fonzi), also on the run. As the parents become more desperate, they feel they have no choice but to leave the boys with their grandparents as they continue to struggle for their ideals and their lives.

Director Marcelo Piñeyro (Burnt Money) has written a screenplay full of nuance, richly felt dialogue, and sweet moments. What it lacks is meat, some structure to bring the events that have created the family's circumstances alive and to allow viewers, especially those without prior knowledge, a feel for the time and place. Except for a few television images, one shot of soldiers, and some suggestion in comments by the characters, there is no mention of the military regime or explanation of what is happening in Argentina and, more important, within the couple's particular circle. While it is implied that some of their friends have disappeared, Piñeyro leaves us wondering why. He never really tells us who these people are and to what extent they are in danger. Why have they felt it so urgent to disappear themselves before being disappeared? As capable artists as Roth and Darín are, there are moments in the film where they seem to be struggling with this hazy nature of the material.

Kamchatka could be seen as an allegory of the tragic period of the "dirty war" that it's set in, as it leaves so many questions unanswered. Still, with more substantial context, this beautifully acted film would have been a more powerful portrait of its time. -- Judy CantorThose looking for a flyweight romp may come away happy from this Spanish sex farce, but those seeking more-substantial fare will have to find it elsewhere in the festival's lineup. Like a bazillion other Spanish films before it, Other Side has to do with young beautiful yuppies who are having relationship problems. Paola (Natalia Verbeke), a knockout blond, calls it quits with her rumpled, curly-haired live-in lover, Pedro (Guillermo Toledo), telling him she's in love with another man. Pedro seeks solace from his best friend, Javier (Ernesto Alterio), and Javier's squeeze, Sonia (the ubiquitous Paz Vega), a knockout brunette. Soon, of course, it's revealed that Paola's new flame is Javier. And there's more, including a Pedro-Sonia setup, a would-be lesbian lover for Sonia, and an incredibly boring chick who fixates on Pedro.

Seen any of this before? Sure, you have. There are mighty few plot twists here that don't turn out exactly the way you might expect. David Serrano's script is a commercial construct with tried-and-true elements -- a farcical story line, bright colorful settings, and sexy young women who are forever peeling off their clothes with glee. Certainly the energetic cast is the film's strongest element. There's a welcome sense of playfulness throughout the picture -- these actors look as if they are having a lot of fun.

One giant misstep: Musical numbers that feature various characters singing against a backdrop of energetic but derivative jazz choreography, looking like refried Fosse. The bouncy tunes add some energy, but director Emilio Martínez Lázaro fails to capitalize on the potential. From the look of his camerawork, he not only seems to have missed Moulin Rouge but he hasn't even discovered Singin' in the Rain. -- Ronald Mangravite

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