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MIAMI - Due respect to the Miami International Film Festival, which I'm confident has many delights in store over the next few days, but I think my festival experience may have peaked yesterday afternoon. Because, honestly, once you've had a hug from Darlene Love, it'd be unreasonable to expect much more from life -- much less a film festival.
Love -- onetime protégée of Phil Spector, owner of some of the greatest pipes in all soul music and the official voice of Christmas in my household and many others -- was in town for the festival opener, "Twenty Feet from Stardom," in which she's one of the star subjects. She was also, to my great delight, the star of yesterday's small, informal press brunch, where she held court with a bottomless supply of lively anecdotes and reflections from a storied career in show business -- from Spector to Letterman to "Lethal Weapon.". I was lucky enough to find myself seated directly opposite the great lady and don't mind admitting my existing fandom was doubled several times over: the Weinsteins, who bought "Twenty Feet from Stardom" at Sundance, have an authentic publicity goldmine here.
An audience with Darlene Love isn't really an act that any festival film should have to follow, so it's a good job that "Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War" (B+) is so special. One of Miami's handful of world premieres, it's a film that seems destined for extensive festival travel, though this was plainly the right city in which to unveil it -- a galvanzing, necessarily rough-hewn study of Cuba's conscientized underground hip-hop scene, it sent a palpable electric current through the largely Spanish-speaking audience.
Documentaries that draw attention upfront to the dangers involved in their production can often straying into self-aggrandizing, even disingenuous, territory. In director Jesse Acevedo's case, however, the bravado is justified as the film's frequently guerilla-style shooting is essential. In taking on a government that wields violent censorship measures not just against artists, but audiences too, Acevedo's film bristles with genuine risk and urgency: that it was completed at all seems a significant achievement, bolstered by the cogency and commendable lack of hysteria in the finished product.
The ostensible subject of the film is Los Aldeanos, a Havana-based rap duo who have been vigorously fighting the power since 2003 with a combination of aggressive beats and blunt, often lewd, anti-authoritarian lyrics. Lead MC El Aldeano boasts in one track that he's "hardcore as anal sex without lube"; in one of the film's sweeter asides, his elderly aunt frets over the such rhymes with equal parts disapproval and concern. She has every reason to be worried: the police are a constant tailing shadow on the group as they illegally perform and distribute their protest music.
These hulking, tattooed people's poets are aware of the worst-case consequences of their resistance, however, which is something that can't be said for all their fans. "Viva Cuba Libre" thus hits its angriest, most infectiously impassioned register as it shifts focus to the flight of the Cruz brothers -- two young men who arrested and beaten in their own home, and finally imprisoned for five years, for the simple crime of listening to one of the Aldeanos' bootleg CDs.
Using hidden cameras to negotiate a society where people live in reasonable fear of speaking their mind even privately, Acevedo excavates this miscarriage of justice inasmuch as you can excavate the deeds of a government so irrational -- the film's moving centerpiece is an interview with the brothers' stricken mother, still no closer to making sense of what has happened than the day her children were taken into custody. Shot in a moving car in an atmosphere of cramped panic, it's a sequence that could read as exploitative in less compassionate hands, but the emotional payoff is shattering.
Amid its more politicized agenda, however, "Viva Cuba Libre" also hits home as a vital, frequently good-humored portrait of a city culture all too often romanticized in tourist cinema; Acevedo's interview technique, whether in street vox pops or in busy domestic spaces, benefits from a keen ear and eye for life at the ages. (The music itself, meanwhile, is pretty compelling.) In demonstrating how a down-but-never-out culture depends on art and music to rise above economical and social suppressors, Acevedo's film stands as a louder, ruder bookend to Wim Wenders's less politically candid "Buena Vista Social Club" -- it deserves equivalent exposure.
I'm less confident that festival audiences worldwide will find their way to the festival's narrative competition opener, Mexican director Analeine Cal y Mayor's debut feature "The Boy Who Smells Like Fish" (C-) -- and not just because this gentle-hearted but tonally baffling fusion of afterschool special, disease-of-the-week movie and magical-realist romance might be saddled with the least commercially-minded title since "Life is Cheap, But Toilet Paper is Expensive."
Still, it presumably sounded more approachable than "Trimethylaminuria," the name of the rare ailment -- also known as, yes, fish odor syndrome -- that afflicts teenaged protagonist Mica (the appealing Douglas Smith, best known for TV's "Big Love") from birth. It's an unusual and obviously unfortunate condition that the film spotlights with a curiously conflicted mixture of compassion and ridicule, alternating between Up With People sentiment and broad comedy, as one subsidiary character after another twitches their nose in response to Mica's extreme B.O.
The Canadian-set film's already high levels of farcial whimsy are given a needless assist by a subplot that finds Mica growing up in a heritage museum devoted to fictitious Mexican cheese-balladeer Guillermo Garibai and run with considerable zeal by the boy's doting mother (the delightful Ariadna Gil, who leaves proceedings all too early). That this business receives such improbably brisk passing trade in the suburb of Toronto is one of the smaller question marks in the naive script, co-written by the director with Javier Gullon, that is most sure-footed when covering Mica's tentative, sweetly familiar romance with fellow, more fragrant misfit Laura (Zoe Kravitz, an actress who continually seems bound for bigger things).
Cal y Mayor sometimes seems to be channelling Almodovar with her blend of the kitsch and the cute; indeed, this Canadian co-production (which also stars Canucks Carrie-Annie Moss as Mica's motherly therapist and Don McKellar as his clueless dad) may have seemed a little more fluent if shot, as originally planned, in Spain. Still, it's hard see Kravitz's point in a statement at the post-screening Q&A: "It was too weird a film to say no to," she said, and indeed, you won't see many other teencoms this year that close with a mariachi-scored, Esther Williams-style musical routine. Miami seems as fitting a place as any.
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