Every March the city of Miami comes alive when the Miami Film Festival premieres global and Ibero-American films. Every fall MFF GEMS selects the best films on the international film fests circuit and screens them at Little Havana’s historic MDC’s Tower Theater Miami. These gems shined in their own ways.
Belfast (***) Actor/writer/director Kenneth Branagh is more likely to adapt a Shakespearian play for the big screen (Henry V, Hamlet) than to create something from nothing. But with only his second original screenplay, he creates a charming Celtic family narrative. The setting for his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale is faction-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. A young Protestant boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with his ma (Caitríona Balfe) and da (Jamie Dornan), along with siblings and his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As Buddy experiences the dissention and fighting around him so does the audience. When he befriends a Catholic school girl, their courtship proves that personal connections can trump friction.
Gorgeously shot (Haris Zambarloukos) B&W footage, with exquisite lighting and ample portrait-like closeups, makes this memoir eye-catching and enchanting. Branagh infuses his reimagined neighborhood with strong husband/wife conflict, harsh culture clashes and local terrorist bullies who threaten the family: “You think you’re better than the rest of us!!!” It’s a lot to absorb, but his storytelling keeps you pinned to your seat as much as the soundtrack’s beguiling vocals by the forever-young Van Morrison.
All the ensemble performances are as endearing or threatening as they should be. This elegantly crafted production does have some missteps: 1. Why is a working-class family, who’s in arrears on their taxes, dressed like they buy their clothes at Harrods (costume designer Charlotte Walter)? 2. The origins of the entrenched warfare in Northern Ireland is never explained to the audience. Why not? 3. Why wasn’t there a clear Catholic viewpoint on “The Troubles”? Belfast had a chance to educate and be more than a winsome story among the ruins.
Happening (***1/2) An auto/bio/socio book by French novelist Annie Ernaux provided the source material for writer/director Audrey Diwan’s graphic, poignant feminist story. The setting is a university in France, circa 1963. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a student from a working-class background, is the first in her family to attend college. Her life is upended one day in a doctor’s office. Doctor: ‘You’re pregnant.” Anne: “Do something!” He gives her a blank stare. She decides that giving birth now will disrupt her life goals and seeks solutions.
Diwan takes a sensitive subject with life-altering consequences, then personalizes and humanizes the circumstances. Vartolomei’s performance is so natural it’s as if you’re her dorm roommate witnessing her stages of denial, frustration, despair and determination. As the school’s mean girls menace Anne, doctors sabotage her wishes and she fends for herself the drama increases to monumental proportions. A similar situation was covered in the groundbreaking film Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The difference here is that obstacles, problems and dangerous remedies are graphically depicted. Not for shock effect, but to show that even in the face of possible imprisonment, women determined to carry out their right to choose will do so even under perilous conditions.
Stellar supporting cast includes veteran actress Sandrine Bonnaire (Vagabond) as the mother who won’t be disrespected and Anna Mouglalis as the abortionist providing services when no one else will. Deft editing by Géraldine Mangenot and revealing yet unobtrusive camerawork by Laurent Tangy provide tight pacing and memorable images that will likely hold female viewers’ rapt attention. Reproduction rights didn’t exist back in the ‘60s. Diwan shows why the world shouldn’t go backwards.
Julia (***) It’s like she never put down her pots and pans. Julia Child was born in 1912 and died in 2004, but her pioneering culinary spirit never left us. A whole generation of chefs and wannabe cooks learned how to make gourmet meals watching Child sauté on PBS. Documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG) capture her essence in every frame. From being the only woman in a Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute class in Paris, to the 12-year odyssey of her best-selling cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to her final years as a women/gay rights hero, elder stateswoman and foodie icon.
Photos and footage artfully assembled (editor Carla Gutierrez) from France, Cambridge and wherever Child cooked Beef Bourguignon, trace her trailblazing efforts, marriage, friends and triumphs. An enchanting score (Rachel Portman, Chocolat) accentuates the French and American moments. Little—from a battle with breast cancer to a provocative but shadowed nude portrait—is left uncovered. Long after this vibrant doc ends you can’t get her unmistakable voice out of your head and still feel her presence. The imposing 6’2” woman knew her mission’s power: “Food is love. It gets everybody together.” A leader in America’s food movement is rightfully praised and immortalized in a doc that is a pleasure to watch. You can almost smell the Coq au Vin simmering on the stove.
The People Upstairs (***) Barcelona’s premier filmmaker Cesc Gay (Truman) must have fallen asleep one night dreaming of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. How else could he conjure up such a vicious and hilarious display of matrimonial strife and apartment living? Julio (Javier Cámara), a snooty middle-aged professor and his wife Ana’s (Griselda Siciliani) marriage has been on the rocks for years. No sex, no touching. Mockery masks their true feelings. Says the spouse to her embittered husband: “Sarcasm is the only way you use your intelligence.” When Ana invites their noisy upstairs neighbors, Salva (Alberto San Juan) a fireman and Laura (Belén Cuesta) a psychologist, over for dinner things get out of hand. Julio is rude. Then the guests surprisingly and coquettishly proclaim, “We came to ask you to have sex with us!” Hors d’oeuvres, empanadas, wine and a foursome for dessert? Who knows what will happen?
With glee and venom on tap, Gay stirs up a pot of suspicions, allegations, repressed emotions and indignation until the mismatched characters are either screaming at or trying to seduce each other. It’s a dinner party with a menu that includes: potential sexcapades, recollections of loud orgasms, peeping Toms, exhibitionism and accusations of breast ogling. The absurdity in this comedy of ill manners never subsides and is enough to make audiences howl with laughter.
This tightly written, well-directed and perfectly acted 81-minute vignette is as engaging and astonishing as any four-character, dialogue-driven film could ever be. A really smart American producer would turn this night of chaos into English-language satire. The People Upstairs will play well on cable or streaming services where adult viewers will be tickled silly and then speed dial their couples therapist.
Red Rocket (**) Director/writer Sean Baker was given an “indie king” crown by some for The Florida Project—a small budget movie with indelible low-income Floridian characters. While others pointed to his inability to create a strong narrative that was more than just a character study. The strengths and weaknesses of his style are on view again in another sunshine state allegory. A Hollywood porn star Mikey (Simon Rex) returns to his small hometown of Texas City an unemployed and broken man. He begs his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and toothless mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss) for a place to stay, promising to help with the bills. Mikey becomes a successful man about town when he starts dealing weed and bragging about his former profession: “I’m an adult film actor.” An affair with a 17-year-old (very coyly played by Suzanna Son) ensues.
Nice set up (co-writers Baker and Chris Bergoch). The colorful, close-to-the gutter characters are campily played by the leads and a multi-cultural cast that also includes Judy Hill, Shih-Ching Tsou, Ethan Darbone, Marlon Lambert and Brittney Rodriguez. Pairing the older, well-endowed lecherous protagonist with a barely legal adolescent may repulse some. But that isn’t the film’s biggest let down. Once the ensemble, place and time are set the script, direction and Mikey lead nowhere. Like it’s all mired in an indie stupor and can’t get out. The good news is this venture into the poor, white-trash social stratum is well worth exploring in a John Waters kind of way. Pity the film dithers and the storyline leads to a flaccid conclusion.
Spencer (**1/2) Fans of Princess Diana longing for the ultimate, tell-all biofilm will be disappointed. Admirers of director Pablo Larraín, who did wonders with Jackie O’s persona in the straightforward bio/drama Jackie, may be frustrated that he’s now chosen style over substance. In an oddly written, one-note script from Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) this 1hr 51min slice-of-life chronicles a pivotal weekend at the Sandingham estate in Norfolk, England. The royal family gathers for the Christmas holidays and Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late to every event. Initially she looks selfishly absorbed in her own turbulence and paranoia. Then it becomes apparent she’s being spied on by nearly everyone. It’s enough to make the most stable person have a mental breakdown.
Larraín pours it on thick. The musical score is too heavy (Claire Mathon). The interiors and sets are justifiably but overly ornate (production design Guy Hendrix Dyas; set decoration Yesim Zolan). The costumes (Jaqueline Durran, Little Women) steal scenes. Larraín’s direction seems far more interested in the tech qualities and painting a gaudy portrait than concentrating on the life of a popular figure many royal watchers adored.
Leave it to actor Stewart to save the day. Ninety percent of the time she brings the spirit and look of Princess Di back to earth in an eerily real performance that captures the spirit of Buckingham Palace’s most rebellious daughter-in-law. Singlehandedly, she humanizes the gatecrasher who annoyed the crowned heads. Stewart gives voice to the princess’s anguish, justifies her sense of betrayal and portrays the lack of acceptance that troubled her. There are times when the camera catches Stewart’s face at a certain angle and along with her inflection, mannerisms and breathy speech pattern it’s as if Princess Di is talking to you. An Oscar nom and possibly a win could be in the cards for the former star of the Twilight series. She’s come a long way.
For more information about the Miami International Film Festival go to: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/
Belfast Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja3PPOnJQ2k
Happening Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGe_O7Ll3HY
Julia Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aon49topYHo
The People Upstairs Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtf3IkDrLHg
Red Rocket Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nTMtDNOUCg
Spencer Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20BIS4YxP5Q