By now many of you are probably used to my yearly rant on how the folks running the OUTshine Film Festival somehow manage to fudge a potentially intriguing crop of international cinema by kowtowing to lowest-common-denominator concerns.
In other words, a particular title's quality (or lack thereof) tends to hold less importance than how said selection fits into a movie/party package. Who cares if a slickly assembled crowdpleaser doesn't hold a candle to other, far more stimulating options in a given year's lineup? Wide appeal, attractive faces and tied-with-a-bow calls for LGBTQ+ unity hold top priority, even as most of these movies vanish from memory by the time the last champagne bottle at the post-screening soiree is popped open.
Which makes it all the more gratifying that, at least at first glance, the 2019 Miami lineup appears to be an ironclad return to form, an eclectic assortment of fiction features, documentaries and shorts that tell stories both familiar and novel, both joyous and downbeat (and sometimes both). The 21st annual event is a little longer this year, an 11-day banquet of cinema from all corners of the globe, heavy on European entries but also featuring several Asian imports. (Miami Film Festival could learn a thing or two, considering what certainly feels like a dearth of East Asian films.)
Now, I've only seen a handful of the selections (85 foreign, indie and art films, according to organizers) that programming director Joe Bilancio, executive director Victor Gimenez and the rest of their team have secured, but judging by what I've seen so far, SoFlo movie buffs are in for a treat over the next week and a half.
Here are four short reviews of some of the selections. See you at the movies.
“José”: The lovers lie naked in bed at a cheap, run-down motel. So what if these two young men are paying by the hour? So what if the odds that their frequent trysts will solidify into something more substantial are slim? Their bond, portrayed with full-frontal frankness, is pretty evident by their body language. They kiss. Not quick pecks, either. Slow, exquisite smooches that seem to last for days. Director/co-screenwriter Li Cheng invites us to bathe in the intimacy José and Luis share, while also detailing how vulnerable and fleeting it is.
The scene is just one in a series of indelible moments that shape Cheng's perceptive, richly lensed portrait of present-day Guatemala City into a vivid character study. The indigenous title character (Enrique Salanic) is a quiet, lower-class 19-year-old who lives with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), a God-fearing food seller in her 50s who begins worrying about her son after she finds out abut his ongoing dalliance with Luis (Manolo Herrera). José's “regular,” a fling that threatens to strengthen into something more, is slightly older, a handsome builder from the countryside who is just as smitten, and thus begins to exert pressure on José to leave the nest. The men are closeted but free of the internalized shame that tends to go with the territory.
Cheng's sophomore feature unfolds in episodic fashion, allowing the filmmaker to focus on quotidian interactions between his protagonist and those he cares about. The director explores this society's religious fervor with nonjudgmental curiosity. He also devotes considerable screen time to the mother's abandonment issues, avoiding the pitfall of depicting her emotional attachment as something José must overcome. Its absorbing naturalism, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Paolo Giron, has a transporting, you-are-there quality that recalls the work of Kelly Reichardt and Victor Nunez. It's clear to see why this indie winner walked away with the Queer Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. If you only have time for one film during OUTshine's opening weekend, this is a most rewarding option.
(“José” Screens Friday, April 19 at 9 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach)
“A Dog Barking at the Moon”: There are dysfunctional families, and then there's the astoundingly splintered clan at the center of this potent Chinese-Spanish co-production. Director Lisa Zi Xiang doesn't spell things out in her debut feature, which boasts a complex nonlinear structure, but what is immediately clear is that there's an ocean of regret, as well as an actual body of water, dividing Xiaoju (Nan Ji) and her mother, Li Juimei (Renhua Na).
Xiaoju, who is pregnant, travels back home to China from the U.S., her husband Benjamin (Thomas Fiquet) in tow, to be with her parents. Shuttling back and forth across three time periods, it doesn't take long for viewers to learn what the elephant in the room is: Earlier in their marriage, when Xiaoju was a bright schoolgirl, Li Jiumei caught her husband, Huang Tao (Wu Renyuan), fooling around with a younger male family friend. But even now, decades later, the couple remains together, even though all signs point to the notion that they'd both be better off divorcing. “This is the marriage I got,” Huang Tao tells his disapproving daughter. “Maybe this is my fate.”
But the bulk of “A Dog Barking at the Moon,” which won a Teddy Jury Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival, is told from the women's perspective, including flashback sequences depicting the younger Li Jiumei.
Her present-day self, increasingly consumed by a religious scam peddling a guru billed a living Buddha, doubles down on the lacerating arguments with her daughter. Such intense squabbling would have been a lot harder to take had Xiang not opted to stage most scenes in long uninterrupted takes, allowing the material to breathe and lending the movie a quality that's both theatrical and cinematic. Art connoisseurs will likely link the film's title to Spanish painter Joan Miró's 1926 painting of the same name, which shows just what it describes, adding a ladder on the left side. Is it meant to convey traveling a great distance? Because that's precisely what Xiang does as her story's revelations come to light. Sometimes the greatest chasm can be crossed with a kind word, the filmmaker appears to express, and sometimes that void is just too damn wide.
(“A Dog Barking at the Moon” Screens Wednesday, April 24 at 9:15 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach)
“Fireflies”: If you think Xiaoju feels like a stranger in her own country of origin, wait until you see Ramin, the Iranian man at the core of this Mexico-set refugee drama. Persecuted at home because of whom he chose to love, the handsome traveler finds himself stuck in the port city of Veracruz with few options before him. Played by the versatile Arash Marandi (“Under the Shadow”), Ramin is resourceful and determined to either reach Canada or return to Turkey, which is where he got on the ship that took him to Latin America. (One of this film's most refreshing aspects is that the character shows zero interest in going to the U.S.) In the meantime, he whiles away the hours doing cleanup work, talking his landlady Leti (Flor Eduarda Gurrola) into teaching him Spanish and pining for the boyfriend he left behind in Tehran.
Writer-director Bani Khoshnoudi avoids a common trap when it comes to depicting LGBT characters in movies dealing with such topical subject matter, which is that their sexuality is all too often erased in favor of social justice concerns. Marani, giving a full-throated performance, prevents that from happening.
He etches an affecting portrait of loneliness and resolve in the face of adversity. The character's friendship with Leti helps give the film a lived-in texture. Less successful is how Khoshnoudi handles the sexual tension between Ramin and Guillermo (Luis Alberti), his ostensibly straight co-worker, which indulges in a reductive cliché that regards violence as the only logical outcome. But this ends up being a fairly minor quibble about this engrossing work, which returns to South Florida after flying off with the HBO Ibero-American Feature Film Award at the Miami Film Festival last month.
(“Fireflies” Screens Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach)
“Consequences”: With so much outside-the-box content showing at OUTshine this year, one would think this bruising coming-of-age tale from Slovenia, coming back to the festival after screening at its Fort Lauderdale Edition last fall, would feel tired and stale, but writer-director Darko Štante, here making a confident feature debut, keeps the familiar subject matter fresh by imbuing his characters and situations with subversive laughs and a considerable sex drive.
His rebellious leading man is Andrej (Matej Zemlji), young, not so dumb but still full of c-- okay, you get the picture. He's dating a girl, but sex with her literally fails to stimulate him, But the 18-year-old's got bigger problems to deal with than his wiener's temperament. His parents have had it with his rowdy and disruptive ways, so off he goes to a youth detention facility. Juvie, as the strapping lad soon discovers, is a den of vipers filled with impulsive and backstabbing hotheads. But he also realizes there are perks to be had, especially after he's taken under the wing of hunky hooligan Zeljko (Timon Šturbej). Andrej, not sure how his new mentor will react to his, um, rising feelings toward him, begins doing small favors for him and gradually earns the fetching criminal's trust.
What follows hardly reinvents the genre, but Štante has crafted a youth-in-revolt saga that hurtles forward like a freight train. Its American counterparts feel like cinematic eunuchs next to this rock-solid, bluntly effective flick that knows when to laugh at its characters' predicaments and when to take things seriously. It brings on the sizzle. In a word, woof.
(“Consequences” Screens Saturday, April 27 at 9:45 p.m., Regal Cinemas South Beach)
OUTshine Film Festival's Miami Edition runs through Sunday, April 28. For showtimes and more information about this year's lineup, go to mifofilm.com/films/program.