Enigmas and heartaches at Miami Film Festival GEMS 2018

Several of the most acclaimed festival screeners arrive on our shores this weekend for Miami Film Festival GEMS, an autumnal amuse-bouche for cineastes who can’t wait until March for the full MFF experience.

Among the items airing at the Tower Theater: actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife and Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s followup to his Oscar-winning 2014 Ida. Capernaum and El Angel, Cannes Jury Prize winner and Un Certain Regard favorite, respectively, will get airings too. Thursday’s opening night film was Birds of Passage, Columbia’s entry for the 2019 Foreign Language Academy Award. Given that GEMS has screened Call Me By Your Name and Certain Women in previous years, this prequel to MFF isn’t a mere addendum; its programming has equaled and sometimes surpassed the spring festival’s.

Below are reviews of two films I screened. I’ll join critics Juan Barquin, Hans Morgenstern, and Rubén Rosario for a panel discussion on Lee Chang-dong’s Burning moderated by Lauren Cohen. Hope to see you there.

Click here for Rubén Rosario and Juan Barquin and Hans Morgenstern’s coverage and reviews.

Click here for full schedule.

WILDLIFE, directed by Paul Dano

The men in Richard Ford’s fiction wilt under expectations: codes of behavior, presumptions about whom and when to marry, how expressive they should be around wives and children. Written at the height of the minimalist fad of the post-Vietnam years in which Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver also triumphed, Wildlife suffers at times from an awkward gait; the straitjacket of Ford’s observations constricts his prose. Even so, Paul Dano avoids nearly every pitfall of actors who write and direct their first feature. Attention to performances you assume he’s got; what gives his adaptation of Wildlife a lift is his insight into how topography affects character. Great Falls, Montana, setting for much of Ford’s novels and stories, has a lot of space, but it enforces its social codes as rigidly as John Cheever’s Shady Hill.

Jake Gyllenhall delivers career-best work as Jerry Brinson, a ne’er-do-well with an unstinting belief in his capacity to charm. Fired from a caddy job, allegedly because he was too friendly with customers, he mopes around the rented house in which Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their fourteen-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) try to act like things are fine. When a desperate Jerry accepts a job fighting an out of control forest fire, it shatters Jeanette’s interest in keeping a lid on her desires. She begins a flirtation with a cynical rotter of a car salesman (Bill Camp). Filtering the events through the prism of Joe works to Dano’s advantage; Joe, too young to understand the sexual parrying of adults, weights developments insofar as they hurt the useful fiction he’s created about his parents’ marriage, especially of his beloved dad.

At first Mulligan looks as if she’s straining to convey Jeanette’s commitment to good cheer, but when Gyllenhaal is out of the picture and she can embrace the ways in which Jeanette becomes re-comfortable with her body and what she can do to get the attention of men she shows a boldness that no other role has drawn from her. Young Oxenbould, who looks a bit like Dano himself, is her match. 6:45 p.m. Saturday, October 13.

BURNING, directed by Lee Chang-dong.

“So many Gatsbys in Korea,” Jong-su remarks, partly in awe of the space and gadgetry of a modern condo owned by Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su’s beloved Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend, has been dating Ben since a trip to Kenya and shows no sign of letting him go; to Jong-su, clinging to the memory of awkward sex one night, this is frustrating as hell. Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2011’s marvelous Poetry amalgamates Haruki Murakami’s title story and elements from William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” into an unsettling, uneven creation.

In its second half Burning abandons social comedy for a whodunit with metaphysical undertones when Haemi vanishes without a trace. Lee has already established that she’s a dancer who delights in making her own reality; a lovely meet-cute shows her peeling and eating an imaginary orange, and there’s business involving a house cat named Boil who may or may not exist. As played by the charming Yeun, Ben relishes playing a post-yuppie serious about being superficial, which makes him a natural suspect in Jong-su’s eyes (“I’ve never shed a tear in my life,” he confesses, rather proudly, after Haemi has shared a moment of loneliness on her travels). He’s also an admitted pyromaniac, specializing in setting fire to rural greenhouses. Complicating matters, though, is Ben’s bemused, condescending, but genuine curiosity about Jong-su, who wants to be a writer but struggles with the burden of a father who’s in and out of jail over assault charges.

A writer-director fascinated by the rhythms of banality, Lee stumbles when sustaining the enigmas of the last hour. What’s clear, though, is that Burning plays as a reflexive commentary on the nature of fictions: Haemi’s disappearance is likely more compelling than whatever Jongsu has written to date or may write. Murakami’s story, written in tough guy Chandler prose, draws no connection between barn burning and Haemi’s vanishing except by forcing the reader to, whereas Lee’s film studies Ben’s milieu of nattering Korean socialites; Yeun’s smirk and shrunken hollow features emphasize his isolation. You don’t have to buy the ending — go along for the ride. 12:30 p.m. Saturday, October 13, followed by a panel discussion.

1 thought on “Enigmas and heartaches at Miami Film Festival GEMS 2018

  1. Jukebox

    I wish you well with the long form videoclip for UNICEF that is Labaki’s CAPHERNAUM. You don’t get sentimental miserable porn done so well these days. Audiences should eat that up.
    As for EL ANGEL, you might know it’s a hit in Argentina. Luis Ortega, did well in not following the real story of an underage crook, rapist and finally assasin story of the unfamous Carlos Robledo Puch, one of the few here to receive a sentence for life and still in jail after all these years (a kind of record) The director painted him as “artist wannabee”. But his unPC take on Puch goes only so far (the rape of 7 female victims are conveniently erased from the story) I’m ambivalent about that film (like the film itself) It’s about many things: he wanted to be a pianist, dancer, TV star, pansexual. The End. Hope you make a review in the blog.


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