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Ellen Miller, MillersTime Movie Reviewer:

Attending the Miami Film Festival is always a treat for us. We’re now in the third or fourth year of making this a “spring break” activity. The weather is always (at least) 30 degrees warmer than Washington and good friends host us. We see movies, we dissect them, we eat, we laugh, we sleep, and the next day we do it all over again, for three or four days. I should also note that we even “train” for our typical three films a day: long morning walks on Miami Beach or through beautiful residential neighborhoods. Sustenance involves everything from the best ice cream in Miami, the unbelievably delicious frita cubana to be had in Little Havana, a return visit to our most favorite Miami restaurant (River Seafood Oyster Bar), and our first but not last visit to Michael Schwartz’s new, wonderful Amara at Paraiso.

The Miami Film Festival (#MiamiFF) focuses on offering a great array of Latin American and Miami-made movies, and this year they clearly have made an effort to increase diversity in film directors and to expand to films that would appeal to a younger audience. There are over 150 (168 or 195, depending upon which of our memories is more accurate) screenings shown over 10 days, and choosing the films is not easy.

This year we found more of a variation in the films we saw than in previous years. (In total we saw nine films in three and a half days.) A few I will rate with five stars — by my standards a ‘you must see this one.’ Others, including some that were widely heralded, just didn’t work for us. And of course, there were a number in between those poles: films that were great (generally because of the subject) but fundamentally flawed in the execution.

The views in these reviews are my own. (Note that Richard and I do not always agree in our ratings.)

I’ll start with the best of what we saw.

Gladesman: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys (Director: American David Abel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and film maker)

Ellen *****   Richard ****

This film is a superb documentary that tells the story of Florida’s Everglades airboaters –- the men and women who for generations have lived, fished and hunted freely in one of the most environmentally threatened – and beautiful — areas of the US. The film is populated with these wonderful characters (a number of whom were in the audience) along with environmentalists and water engineers who also make their case eloquently. It presents both sides of the contentious issues that arise in trying to find the right balance in the area to protect it as a water source for millions of Floridians and preserve a way of life for a small group of people.

The filming is elegant, the scenery magnificent, and the complex story simply told. I wound up cheering for everyone.

(Ed. Note: Gladesmen won the Knight Foundation award for the Best Film Made in Miami.)

The Journey (Director by Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, an award winning Iraqi-Dutch filmmaker)

Ellen ***** Richard *****

This film explores the world of a Palestinian suicide bomber – Sarah (played to perfection by a newcomer actress Zahraa Ghandour) – and what makes her do the things she plans to do. The setting in the Baghdad Central Train Station and as she deliberates her actions, she is distracted by the fast talking Salam, and as the film progresses, they both are forced to face their lives in new ways.

It is a visually stunning black and white film, superbly directed and tautly acted. It’s set in modern day Baghdad. Don’t miss it.

Sergio & Sergei (Director Ernesto Daranas Serrano, a Cuban filmmaker with a number of other films to his credit)

Ellen ***** Richard ***

The story of this movie sounds like a trite joke: Three men walk into a bar. One is a Cuban “ham” radio operator; the second is a former American CIA operative; the third is a Russian astronaut who is on a space mission. (Each of them is a terrific character and the relationship that develops between the three of them is delightful.) The film is set at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union (1992) and in its wake fall all three of these characters.

It is a quirky, funny, political and highly entertaining movie all in one package. It is wonderfully filmed (with terrific shots of Havana) and directed to a very satisfying ending.

See this one: it will make you smile.

My Love or My Passion. (Directed by Argentinian Marcos Carnevale)

Ellen **** Richard ****

A funny, quirky, satirical movie, well worth seeing.

The screen play for this film must have been a joy to write with its laugh-out-loud dialogue and fast-moving pace. (Note: sometimes the dialogue is too fast to follow in the subtitles! If you know Spanish, that helps.) At its heart is a comedic satire about a young couple that is struggling with the impact of addiction, specifically the husband’s futbol (soccer) addiction — a serious addiction. It is ruining his home and work life and push comes to shove.

The acting was terrific and as the film unfolded it was funnier and more outrageous with every minute. It was definitely not the type of film I would normally see, but as the third of three films we saw on one day, I found it highly entertaining.

And, yes, I fear, I also thought that the story it told may not be so very far from the truth.

In Love and In Hate. (Directed by Alejandro Maci, an Argentine screenwriter, director and actor)

Ellen **** Richard ***

This film is in the Agatha Christie tradition, a sort of mashup of the board game “Clue” and Murder on the Orient Express — a real 1940’s classic “who done it.” If you like that kind of movie, you must go see it.

I thought the plot hummed along, revealing itself and the characters with deliberation and mystery. Sound and music was used well to build tension throughout, and the acting was pitch perfect. The setting was stark and stunning (both inside the house and on the beach that surrounded it) and could have been executed by Wes Anderson.

My attention never wavered, and until near the very end, I had no idea “who done it.”  I found this movie very entertaining.

Tully (Directed by Jason Reitman, an often Oscar and Golden Globe nominated director of films such as Thank You For Not Smoking (’05), Juno (’07) and Up in the Air (’09)

Ellen *** Richard ****

I really, really wanted to love this Opening Night film. Its subject is the life of a modern woman, Marlo (superbly played by Charlize Theron), after the birth of her third child. She is overwhelmed, hit with post partum depression, and struggling. Her husband is clueless but wants to be helpful. The plot gets more complicated when the perfect night nanny arrives and takes charge. And while Marlo’s life seems to take a turn for the better, not long afterwards it goes off the rails. As movies go, so far so good.

But (there’s often a “but” in much heralded films often meant more for critics than “real” audiences) there are many twists and turns, nuances and hints of what is really happening beyond what you see on the screen. Without the after-film discussion with the director, I don’t believe that the general movie goer can put the pieces together: Clearly, that was the case for the group of seven friends who saw this film together. And when the director put the pieces together for us, most of us had the same thought: maybe we should see this movie again. (Meaning, we didn’t get it the first time.)

So, heads up on this one. Pay close attention. It had tremendous potential, but there too many unexplained scenes and too many loose threads to make it fully enjoyable.

(Ed note: Of the nine films we saw, Tully is the one most likely to make it to wide distribution. It opens in DC on April 20th.)

Foreign Land (Directed by Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli filmmaker and journalist)

Ellen ***  Richard ****

This documentary told the true story of Shlomi Eldar himself (an Arab Affairs correspondent for the Israeli national news) and Gassan Abbas, a former Israeli actor, both of whom who were frozen out of their careers by conservative critics. The story is fascinating and not unlike what is happening throughout the world in terms of increased political pressure being brought to bear on the media by politicians who dislike what is being reported in their country. Both Eldar and Abbas — who were thought to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause — felt they were living in a “foreign land,” not a country that proclaims itself to be a democracy.

The film consists of a series of interviews with Gassan, conducted by Elder (who was clearly sympathetic to his interviewee). I was left with an uneasy feeling that the film was made as a way to ‘get back’ at the political class, rather than to completely document the story of censure and political pressure on those who disagree with the national government.

I found the focus of the film on one actor too narrow. I wanted more voices, more examples, and more nuance before I could endorse it as a ‘must see.’

The Summit (La Cordillera, Directed by Santiago Mitre whose previous films have received multiple awards at festivals)

Ellen *** Richard ***

This film was headlined as a “political thriller,” and if it was, things must be different in Latin America than they are in the US. There was nothing original here (politician is threatened by possible reveal of financial misdoing by his daughter’s ex-husband; politician bribed by American official to vote a certain way on an international panel pertaining to trade; politician acts badly to promote his own self-interest.) Neither the acting, direction nor filming added to the completely predictable narrative.

This film should have right up my alley, but I was unimpressed.

The Future Ahead (Director by Constanza Novick is an Argentine film maker and this film was her directorial debut.)

Ellen ** Richard **

This was yet another film with terrific possibilities that just didn’t pan out. It is the story of two girls – Florencia (Pila Gamboa) and Romina (Dolores Fonzi) who after decades of friendship continue to love, hate, and feed off one another in both healthy and unhealthy ways. The film begins with their lives as young adolescents and goes nowhere.

It was ultimately unsatisfying.