Women and Dramas First

Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival is upon us, once again promising "over 100 films from 30 countries worldwide," unreeling at venues from Boca Raton to Coconut Grove and, oh yeah, Fort Lauderdale, over a period of three and a half weeks. Most of the movies have multiple showings, and there's the usual variety of festival-related parties, receptions, seminars, and star-studded galas during the festival's 14th season.

Apparently the organizers still embrace the discredited theory that "size matters." And if movie buffs would like to maintain some semblance of a normal life as they try to make their way through the maze that the festival has become, well, tough luck. I doubt that anyone will even attempt to see the entire festival lineup. I certainly won't. But based on experience -- and I've covered more than half of the previous festivals -- I've established some general guidelines for choosing what to see.

The festival has a good track record with documentaries, for example, and since so few documentaries ever find widespread theatrical distribution, festival screenings are often the only chance you'll get to see them. The festival also has a long history of showcasing strong female performances. Just last year we were treated to the eclectic work of Christina Applegate in Claudine's Return, Kate Capshaw in The Alarmist, Jane Horrocks and Brenda Blethyn in Little Voice, Isabelle Huppert in L'École de la Chair, Andie MacDowell in Shadrach, Ingrid Rubio in El Faro, and the international dream ensemble of Carmen Maura, Miou-Miou, Marisa Berenson, Guesch Patti, and Marthe Keller in Elles.

I applaud the festival for its continuing tradition of including a handful of gay-themed pictures, even though this year's batch appears to be a mixed bag. And, admirably, the festival has never shied away from presenting hard-hitting, sometimes even bleak dramas that no major Hollywood studio would dare touch -- last year's Affliction, for instance, and this year's Joe the Kingand The War Zone, both of which I'll review next week.

On the other hand, comedy has never been the festival's strong suit; there's a distinct tendency toward forced zaniness. And I've learned the hard way that the festival's movies about people trying to make movies are usually best avoided.

Here's our first installment (look for part two in next week's issue) of what you can expect from this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

Chacun Pour Soi(All For One): A resounding "Huh?" is the most likely reaction to this dreary contemporary French-Belgian drama about a pair of friends who finish their compulsory military service only to find they don't qualify to continue as soldiers. Humiliated and unwilling to face their conservative families, the two take refuge in a campground, where they meet a couple of women and become involved, sort of, with one. Eventually (and it seems an eternity in this leaden-paced story) one man and one woman pair off, leaving the odd man out to stew in his own juices.

Alexandre Carriere has a modest degree of screen charisma as the scruffy blond scoundrel Nicolas, who tries desperately to adapt to domestic life with Françoise (Florence Masure) and her young daughter. But Nicolas Ducron, as Thierry, the left-behind pal, has an acting range that appears to run from sullen to more sullen. Very late in the game, there's the muddled suggestion that Thierry's long-suffering devotion to his buddy has dark homoerotic dimensions -- "Not scared I'll try to fuck you?" Thierry sneers to Nicolas when they're reunited under strained circumstances -- but by then it's difficult to care one way or another about these losers. It doesn't help that the whole movie looks as washed-out as its characters' lives. (Sunday, October 31, 8 p.m., Mizner Park; Thursday, November 4, 7:30 p.m., Coral Ridge; Thursday, November 11, 5 p.m., Coral Ridge; 105 minutes; in French with English subtitles)

Tumbleweeds: A performance of astonishing depth and breadth is at the heart of this low-budget independent American feature. It's the work of Janet McTeer, a British stage actress who never hits a false note in her portrayal of Mary Jo Walker, a working-class mother from the rural South who has an uncanny knack for fouling up her life. When we first see her, Mary Jo is in the midst of a heated domestic squabble that sends her and her 12-year-old daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown), packing. This fight-and-flight behavior, we soon learn, is a pattern for Mary Jo, who drifts from one ill-advised relationship to another.

She's one of those women who are irrationally but irresistibly drawn to charismatic men who also happen to have mean, sometimes violent, streaks. The precocious, strong-willed Ava understands her mom's predicament all too well but is more or less helpless to intervene, and their loving but turbulent relationship is what propels the narrative.

The Walkers' prospects appear to be improving when they set up residence in the fictional Southern California community of Starlight Beach, where Mary Jo lands a job -- at a security firm managed by Michael J. Pollard, quirky as ever -- and Ava discovers a knack for acting. (She snags the male lead in a school production of Romeo and Juliet, and her attempts to wrap her twangy Southern vowels around Shakespeare's lines are both comical and touching.) A sense of dread settles in, however, when Mary Jo takes up with Jack (Gavin O'Connor, the film's promising director and cowriter), a beefy truck driver who adores her but whose personality is diametrically opposed to hers.

To the filmmakers' great credit, this movie is uncompromising in its presentation of characters whose maddening contradictions make them all the more credible and complex. Jack isn't a bad man, even though he's clearly bad for Mary Jo; likewise, Mary Jo isn't a bad woman, just someone who makes some highly questionable choices, and McTeer's portrayal of her is marvelously nuanced. The venerable character actress Lois Smith (East of Eden, Five Easy Pieces, Fried Green Tomatoes, Dead Man Walking) has a lovely turn in a small supporting part, although Jay O. Sanders, in the thankless role of the "good" guy, is little more than a plot gimmick. (Sunday, November 7, 7 p.m., Coral Ridge; Sunday, November 14, 5 p.m., Coral Ridge; 100 minutes)

All About My Mother: Fresh from its bow at the New York Film Festival, Pedro Almodóvar's latest film once again reminds us that it's a mistake to assume we know what to expect from this bad-boy Spanish filmmaker. Just when we think we have him pegged, he throws us a curve ball like this sometimes exuberant, sometimes poignant comedy-drama, an unlikely homage to the American movie classic All About Eve.

It's a wildly uneven but never less than fascinating take on, among other things, contemporary gender roles, family ties, and the nature of acting. The Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth plays the central character, Manuela, a thirtysomething single mom who loses her beloved son in a freak accident on his 17th birthday. Although the movie spirals in many directions after this incident, it never loses sight of this crushing loss and its far-reaching implications, not only for Manuela but also for others who never even knew her son.

The grief-stricken mother embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Madrid to Barcelona in search of her son's long-lost father, and before long we're in familiar Almodóvar territory, the surreal world of prostitutes, cross-dressers, pre-op transsexuals, and lesbians. Among the characters who come into play are a pair of female lovers (one of them a junkie) starring in a hit production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire; a surgically enhanced old friend of Manuela's who literally straddles the gender line; a young nun who has been impregnated by a man who spends most of his time passing as a woman; and the father of Manuela's son, who has secrets best not revealed here.

The movie is not nearly as sordid as it sounds, largely because Almodóvar tempers his flamboyance with solid characters who are all much more than they seem. Long after this pop-culture stew's outrageousness has faded, its emotional resonance lingers. This is, ultimately, a profoundly melancholy movie that uses humor as a coping mechanism to mask its sense of loss. (Friday, November 12, 7 p.m., Coral Ridge; Saturday, November 13, 8:45 p.m., Coral Ridge; 101 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)

Get Bruce!A roly-poly, frizzy-blond barrel of laughs named Bruce Vilanch is the title character in this unassuming but thoroughly enjoyable documentary. Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and Robin Williams are just a few of the show-biz luminaries who get him -- as in "get" his humor and obtain his services as a gag-writer. For years Vilanch, who's also a columnist for the national gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, has been quietly carving out a niche as one of the best (and best-paid) humorists-for-hire in Hollywood, and by now he has earned a reputation as someone who can tailor the jokes that seem to flow spontaneously out of him to the distinctive personalities and styles of the people for whom he works.

Lately he has achieved a degree of public visibility as the occupant of the cube just to the left of Whoopi on the new version of The Hollywood Squares. (Not coincidentally, he's the show's head writer, and Goldberg is executive producer.) But most of us are much more likely to have encountered Vilanch's snappy sense of humor on the countless awards shows he has worked on as a behind-the-scenes contributor. Those knockout Billy Crystal intros to the Oscars, for instance, are largely his work, and he won well-deserved Emmys for them.

Vilanch has, in fact, waxed witty for the last nine Academy Awards telecasts, and he's also a veteran of the Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys. For this slice-of-Bruce documentary, producer-director Andrew Kuehn gets candid comments from a long list of people who have turned to the writer, including Carol Burnett, Nathan Lane, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Reiser, Roseanne, even Raquel Welch. The filmmaker also elicits the obligatory childhood reminiscences from Vilanch's adoring mom, Henne, who admits, tellingly, "He has certain peculiarities," not the least of which is a near-obsessive fondness for tacky T-shirts. (Friday, November 12, 9 p.m., Coral Ridge; Saturday, November 13, 9:15 p.m., Coral Ridge; 75 minutes)

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