GEMS 2019: Festival Dispatch

Last week’s GEMS mini-festival–the Miami Film Festival’s annual fall showcase–featured an interesting mix of highly anticipated new projects from prominent directors and first features, films that traverse familiar directorial ground and movies that represent departures. The festival, which once again focused on international hits with arthouse crowd, brought an advanced screening of some sure Oscar contenders as well as more niche fare to Miami audiences. Read our first takes below.

Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory)

Opening the GEMS festival was Pedro Almodóvar’s Dolor y Gloría (Pain and Glory), the legendary Spanish filmmaker’s “most personal, semi-autobiographical film to date.” Almodóvar’s intention to create a film that stands out is clear from it’s vibrant opening credits sequence. Pain and Glory reflects life, memory, and self-creation that is cinematically superior in all forms. Every frame is exquisite and curated for cinematic symmetry. With this aesthetic, Almodóvar creates an intimate and distant perspective of the life of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a Spanish filmmaker in his 60s. The film centers Salvador after he receives an invitation to a screening of Sabor, the film he made thirty years prior. Pain and Glory shifts from memories of childhood and Salvador’s current reality as he reunites with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the actor who starred in Sabor and his first adult love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) all while coming to terms with the death of his mother (Penèlope Cruz). Almodóvar’s film is cinematically superior and narratively reflective – it’s no wonder the film was chosen as the festival’s opening night film.

Letter to the Editor

For 40 years filmmaker Alan Berliner has collected and archived newspapers images from the New York Times. The result–, a touching film essay that reinterprets thousands of images to showcase the power of photography and print publication, the importance of having a free press, and the shift to digital news. With no video whatsoever, the collection of images are edited in a way that’s entertaining, witty, and moving. Berliner explained in the essay that while curating these images, he created new meaning or as he called “poetry in the news.” In these still images, he brings to life the story of the news as something we can’t stand and yet can’t look away. He focuses on the fact that news images can be fun, lively, empty, broken, and apocalyptic as well as tell a story of life, people, and the world.

Julia Burgos, an English major pursuing the Film Studies Certificate, is hopeful she’ll complete her senior year with minimal deprivation.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire

For a film coming from the director of Girlhood (2014) that announces its core passion in the title, Céline Sciamma’s 18th-century costume drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire is surprisingly, and marvelously, restrained. A female painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who has been retained to paint the wedding portrait of a noble family’s beautiful daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), must at first hide this fact from her unwilling subject, instead pretending to be her companion and constructing the portrait from careful observation and memory. Sciamma’s camera at first mirrors the artist’s furtive gazes–focusing attention on wisps of hair, hands, Haenel’s suspicious blue eyes–to align the film’s simultaneous interrogation of a female gaze and embodiment of the same. The artist’s gaze, like that of the camera, begins analytically, turns reciprocally erotic, and after a long, sweet, slow build-up ripe with sexual tension, the two women act on their passion. Sciamma’s film never lets us forget that its gendered gaze and the female community emerging from it within the film are framed by a patriarchal culture that demarcates and restricts women’s spaces, its own framing device making this clear. Yet its powerful portrayal of not only of the brief erotic relationship at its center but of other affective relationships between and among women also always make us aware of the camera’s female gaze, and the power such looking has on the worlds we continue to make.

Les Misérables

Ladj Ly’s debut feature plays like a movie from a more experienced filmmaker. Set in the still impoverished Montfermeil district where Hugo’s novel (to which the film bears no plot relation) drew our attention, Les Misérables balances a large cast skillfully to tell the story of violence, police brutality, and childhood in the banlieue. Ly is at efforts to make an action-filled message film that also humanizes even the worst of its characters. At times the effort shows, especially in an ending whose ambiguity feels forced. More often, though, the deepening layers of complexity that arise as the result of conflict between police and neighborhood kids makes for gripping and moving drama. At the story’s heart, a poor muslim boy Issa (Issa Perica) has stolen a lion cub, and in the process of finding and recovering the cub, the police shoot Issa in the face with a flashbang, an act photographed via drone camera by another neighborhood boy. In both finding the cub and in the events that unfold with the drone footage, the police and a variety of neighborhood leaders–an ex-con who owns a storefront restaurant, the informal “mayor,” a prominent drug dealer–reveal the awkward détente that exists among the parties to maintain the status quo. Even the efforts of the two most admirable characters in this mix–the reformed jihadi Salah (Almamy Kanouté) and the audience proxy Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a cop enduring his first day after a transfer to Paris–to diffuse a tense conflict cannot diffuse the anger of a younger generation not being served by thier elders’ status quo, as Salah realizes. Although the shaky camera, quick zoom, jump cut pseudo-documentary style has become de rigueur in these kinds of films of late, and although the subject matter of Les Misérables certainly doesn’t need this added visual volume, it does allow the sometimes stunning drone footage to integrate seaemlessly into the film. Despite some questionable technical and storytelling choices, though, Ly has crafted a feature that is compelling, emotional, and thought-provoking.

Andrew Strycharski directs the film studies program at Florida International University



Honey Boy

Written during a stint in rehab, Honey Boy is Shia Labeouf’s fictionalized recounting of his troubled childhood and the lasting effects of it on his mental health. The movie focuses on child actor Otis’s (Noah Jupe) relationship with his abusive father, played by Shia Labeouf himself. Both actors deliver believable and nuanced performances, in part due to Labeouf’s screenplay. Labeouf has written a film that successfully captures the intricacies of trauma and abusive relationships and does so with enriching humor. Another standout in the film is cinematographer Natasha Braier’s close-up shots and warm color palette that create a sense of intimacy and allow for a deeper understanding of the character’s difficult emotions. The film’s only detriment is a character played by FKA Twigs who befriends Otis and becomes almost like a surrogate mother. But other interactions with Otis can seem inappropriate, making her role confusing and unnecessary. Nevertheless, this is just a minor flaw in an otherwise touching and sincere film. Honey Boy is a must-see for it’s outstanding writing, acting, and cinematography.


Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a hilarious examination of the disconnect between upper and lower class society. It follows the impoverished Kim family that stumbles upon a lucrative opportunity working for the wealthy Park family, but they quickly find themselves in over their heads after an unexpected incident. Bong takes his time, to unravel the plot but every moment is entertaining and worthwhile. The cast delivers every joke perfectly, and Jo Yeo-jeong stands out in particular as the gullible, air-headed matriarch of the Park family. And as funny as it is, Bong doesn’t struggle at all working in thriller elements. The film blends both genres smoothly and somehow, the humor never weakens the severity of more serious scenes. The cinematography, managed by Hong Kyung-po, is yet another strong suit of the film. It works with Bong’s storytelling to establish motifs and focus on beautiful shots that parallel the way in which the lives of the wealthy and poor differ. It’s difficult to find any faults in Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, its jokes land, the actors are strong, and it provides thoughtful social commentary. There is no doubt that Parasite will be up for an Oscar and considering all its merits, it’s guaranteed a win.

Valerie Lopez is a film intern who loves hearing herself talk about movies almost as much as watching them.