MIAMI – I’ve often said it’s a mistake to hold film festivals in beautiful, vibrant cities: if you really want to direct undivided attention to your programme of films, you’d be best off locating the entire thing in a stranded multiplex somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike. In January.
The directors of the Miami International Film Festival, however, are wise to this problem. After a fairly heavily programmed opening weekend, the festival programme unfolds at a civilized pace, with screenings beginning only in the early evening: a fair solution both for working locals and tourists like yours truly, who needn’t choose between the movies and Miami’s ample pastel-colored charms.
After a few days of uncharacteristically cool weather — practically arctic, to go by residents’ complaints, but still a godsend to someone emerging from a drastic London winter — the sun even came out to play ball. Happily, that was just in time for a spectacular, alfresco, Franco-Brazilian-themed brunch at the city’s rooftop Juvia restaurant, in honor of the festival’s Culinary Cinema sidebar opener “Why Did You Leave?.” I regret to say that I missed the film, but can say with conviction that a Culinary Cinema sidebar is something all festivals should consider. (The Miami fest is big on brunches, though their scale and scheduling are distinctly lunch-like to my British sensibilities. Either way, I approve.)
Lest we get drunk on all that Miami sunshine, Lasse Hallström’s frosty Scandi-thriller “The Hypnotist” (B-) was on hand to keep us in check. It was a neat programming choice on the festival’s part, and not just because this eminently commercial adaptation of Lars Kepler’s crossover bestseller is still, strangely, lacking a US distributor.
Rather, it occasioned an career tribute to two-time Oscar nominee Hallström that was all the sweeter for the fact that, 26 years ago, the then-nascent but evidently savvy Miami Film Festival hosted the US premiere of “My Life as a Dog” — the Swedish arthouse smash that made the little-known director’s name in Hollywood. (If you know Hallström only for soft-centered Miramax prestige fare and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, go seek out that 1987 film and be surprised/delighted.) Cleverly, the festival secured Griffin Dunne — producer of Hallström’s first US feature, 1990’s “Once Around” — to deliver the onstage presentation.
“The Hypnotist,” entered last year as Sweden’s official Oscar submission, may be Hallström’s first homeland production since “My Life as a Dog,” but the resemblance to that film — or indeed anything else in the director’s oeuvre — ends there. As the film’s opening beats find the camera poring over a grisly parade of mutilated bodies, the director of “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” seems to take positive delight in the atypical nature of it all. There’s no begrudging Hallström the outlet for his dormant dark side, but this expert journeyman is not so much showing us his true self in this twisty, effectively nasty murder mystery than successfully donning a different disguise.
Not that Hallström has any pretence to the contrary. He has claimed David Fincher’s “Se7en” as an influence, but his film plays very much by the structural and aesthetic rules of the recent, vastly popular wave of Scandinavian crime storytelling on screens big and small — which, of course, Fincher recently fed back into with his take on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” More impersonally styled, with the emphasis less on chic atmospherics than the mechanics of an absorbing narrative that doesn’t bear the closest scrutiny, “The Hypnotist” is closer in texture to the original, Swedish-language Millennium thrillers, but that’ll work for many.
One ace it does have in its hand is a fiery performance from Hallström’s wife, the perennially underused Lena Olin, here making the most of her biggest dramatic meal since TV’s “Alias.” As the viciously distraught mother of a kidnapped teen — whose disappearance appears to be linked to a brutal family murder in Stockholm — she gives this lengthy, diffuse procedural its human kick. Still, there’s fine work from Tobias Zilliacus as the gray-faced detective investigating both cases in the face of resistance from his superiors, and Mikkel Persbrandt (whom you may remember from the recent Danish Oscar-winner “In a Better World”) as Olin’s husband — a professionally discredited hypnotherapist whose interrogation of the massacre’s lone, comatose survivor is the key to cracking the case.
I’m being coy in the synopsis department, since I’m reliably informed that Paolo Vacirca’s adapted screenplay takes such liberties with the popular source novel that I’m liable to spoiler accusations from all angles, but the changes that have been made appear to be in the interests of amping up the family melodrama — suggesting, at least, that Hallström hasn’t wholly gone rogue on us in a film that is at once an alien homecoming and a familiar departure. (More on Lasse Hallström and his unusual career to come in my interview with him — keep an eye out.)
Kissed with as much South American sun as can reasonably penetrate the stylish shadows of its lovely monochrome lensing, Matias Cruz’s short, sweet, fleet musical biopic “Miguel San Miguel” (B+) was a welcome antidote to all that grim-up-north business, though it’s no bauble. Yet another product of the Chilean film industry’s dazzling resurgence of late, it’s also a markedly youthful entry in this national cinema’s ongoing negotiation of their tricky political legacy.
Pablo Larrain, of course, recently capped his brilliant Pinochet-era trilogy with an Oscar nomination for its nimblest, most optimistic entry, the advertising satire “No.” “Miguel San Miguel,” the true story of a vocally liberal high school rock band formed in the most violently suppressive days of the dictatorship, bookends “No” in delineating the liberties and dangers afforded by creative expression under a dark regime, though it’s lighter still, smartly reflecting the unformed political perspectives of its teenaged male protagonists –who don’t yet know everything they’re fighting against, but are right to fight just the same.
The Miguel of the title is a shy, musically adept high school kid with a collection of battered, beloved Beatles records, a school briefcase that doubles as his drum kit, and no direction for the rhythm in his fingers until a pair of like-minded classmates come his way. Mutually exasperated by the strictures of a society that manifest themselves even in classroom haircut inspections, the boys form a garage band — well, a bedroom band, to be accurate — that gives both voice and platform to their frustrations, and are surprised when others respond to them.
It’s old-fashioned lets-put-on-a-show stuff given a distinguishing cultural context, counterbalanced by universal coming-of-age rites as the gawky Miguel finds puppy love in a hopeless place. A good portion of the third act in this tidy 80-minute film appears to be missing: the film stops short just as the characters appear to be finding traction.
Still, even that abruptness is appealing in a film that is hardly as scrappy as the band at its center. Mirko Zlatar’s crisp, cool lensing, in its best moments evoking the early rock photography of Anton Corbijn, lends it real snap and polish, as does an inventively fluctuating sound mix that makes terrific use of a selection of vintage pop-rock standards that must have cost at least half the earth. Here’s hoping “Miguel San Miguel” doesn’t end its festival journey in Miami — though, as long as the sun’s out and the water’s warm, there are worse places it could stay.