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The Big Screen Wins At Sunny Film Festival

Our critic has no regrets he opted for shade in Miami

A surprising number of film festivals, from Cannes in Southern France to Telluride in the Rocky Mountains, take place in settings where natural beauty is a major attraction.

Since moviegoing is an indoor sport, there's something paradoxical about this - and sure enough, the situation tends to divide spectators, revealing how fanatical they really are about cinema. In one camp are scenery-lovers who seize any excuse for dodging a film during daylight hours. In the other are moles like me, burrowing deep into screening rooms and showing a preference for celluloid over sun.

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The Miami Film Festival splits up spectators as effectively as any I've attended, but this year's program - the 13th annual edition - assembled a fair number of pictures no true moviegoer would want to miss, blue skies or no blue skies. Some may never get beyond the festival circuit, but others are already on their way to theaters, making this event a good place to get a feel for mainstream moviegoing over the next few months.

One picture that arrived on commercial screens a few days after its Miami showing is "A Midwinter's Tale," the new Kenneth Branagh comedy. It tells the bittersweet story of an on-the-skids Shakespearean trying to revive his career by herding a cast of low-talent eccentrics through an offbeat "Hamlet" production in a drafty suburban church.

Branagh acquired a sizable fan club with his debut feature, "Henry V," but subsequent movies like "Dead Again" and "Frankenstein" have failed to sustain his short-lived reputation as an Orson Welles clone capable of writing, producing, and starring in just about anything. Exercising some caution, he's been scaling back his schedule lately - participating only as an actor in the current "Othello," and limiting himself to the off-screen writing and directing chores in "A Midwinter's Tale."

His new modesty is serving him well. He's a superb Iago in "Othello," and his own "Midwinter's Tale" has turned out more cozy and consistent than earlier films he's directed, affectionately portraying a corner of the theatrical world that cinema rarely bothers to acknowledge. While it's hardly a memorable movie, it succeeds reasonably well on its own modest terms, and theater buffs should get a special kick out of it. Joan Collins and Richard Briers are among the hard-working troupers.

Also coming to theaters immediately after Miami is "Hate," a hard-hitting French drama that does for Paris what "Clockers" and "Boyz N the Hood" did for American cities, depicting the sadly dehumanized lives of underprivileged city dwellers. It's hard not to shudder at the film's chief metaphor for society's blindness toward contemporary urban ills: a bleakly ironic joke about a man who jumps out a skyscraper window and keeps saying to himself on the way down, "So far everything's all right...."

Due in theaters later this year is "Celestial Clockwork," starring Ariadna Gil as a Venezuelan woman who flees her fiance in Caracas and heads for Paris with dreams of becoming a French opera star. It's a lightweight confection with little substance, but the Miami audience loved filmmaker Fina Torres's irreverent blending of Verdi, salsa, and the timeless Cinderella theme.

Bigger and bolder is "Underground," the epic about former Yugoslavia that captured the grand prize at this year's Cannes filmfest. Made as a French-German-Hungarian coproduction by Yugoslav native Emir Kusterica, it comments on recent Balkan history through the tragicomic story of several families who hide in a cellar during World War II, and find themselves surrounded by chaos every time they emerge during the next 50 years. Trimmed a bit from its original three-hour-plus length, it's due for a New York showing at Lincoln Center on Feb. 27 and may then make its way into regular theaters.

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Other attractions luring spectators from the Florida sun included the glorious "Flamenco," a stunning compendium of songs and dances by Spanish director Carlos Saura, and "The Voice of the Moon," a strenuous comedy distinguished only by the fact that it was Italian master Federico Fellini's last film. Plus "The White Balloon," a charming Iranian comedy that's starting to arrive on commercial screens.

Miami's message is clear: Not every ambitious movie is a masterpiece, but there's plenty for audiences to look forward to as 1996 unfolds.

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