Women and Dramas First, Part II

Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival

After its customary "minifest" screenings of the past couple of weeks in neighboring Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties as well as in Broward, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival begins the main portion of its 14th season this week. And as I indicated last week, the festival appears to be continuing its efforts to see just how many movies can be crammed into a period of three and a half weeks. Like the recent big-screen version of TV's South Park, it's proud of being "bigger, longer, and uncut."

The average moviegoer may well be intimidated by such cinematic abundance. While it's heartening that the festival is still showcasing films that go well beyond the mainstream, it's frustrating, as I can attest, to try to make selections from such a vast schedule of screenings. Unless festival organizers unexpectedly make a radical return to the days of a scaled-down, tightly focused event, however, we'll have to contend with their overly generous slate of films.

Here's a recap, then, of my rules of thumb. If you're a documentary fan, the festival is usually an ideal place to see such films before they disappear into video limbo. Gay-themed pictures are also a good bet, although you have to be selective. Films featuring strong female leads are a festival specialty. And you're almost always safer opting for drama over comedy, as the following reviews should make clear.

24 Nights: This super-low-budget independent romantic comedy from first-time feature filmmaker Kieran Turner has its moments, most of them in its latter half. But overall the movie suffers from the inevitable comparisons to such recent gay-themed successes as the more polished Edge of Seventeen and the much edgier Trick.

The gimmicky premise in this film is that, at the age of four, an impressionable Manhattan boy named Jonathan had an encounter with Santa Claus that left him convinced he can have whatever he wants if he is well behaved and wishes hard enough. Twenty years later Jonathan, a gay-bookstore employee living with his sister and her husband, is still writing letters to Santa (as well as to his deceased parents), now asking not for toys but for the man of his dreams. On December 1 -- "24 Shopping Days Until Christmas" -- the countdown begins, and we follow Jonathan's faltering, sometimes amusing quest to win over the young man he has determined is his Mr. Right: a new-in-town Southerner who just happens to have a long-time boyfriend in tow.

Aside from the Pretty Woman-by-way-of-Clueless fairy-tale underpinnings, the picture's biggest problem is that its central character, as portrayed by Kevin Isola, comes across as hopelessly shallow and self-absorbed. The two Southerners opposite him, winningly portrayed by David Burtka and Stephen Mailer, are so much more interesting that the movie would have been better served by abandoning Jonathan and following them. (Saturday, November 6, 10:30 p.m., Coral Ridge; Sunday, November 7, 9 p.m., Coral Ridge; 97 minutes)

Joe the King: For his first film behind the camera, actor Frank Whaley -- who had an unforgettable bit as the doomed young misfit whose burger Samuel L. Jackson samples in Pulp Fiction -- has rounded up quite a cast of supporting players. Among them are Camryn Manheim (of TV's The Practice) as a schoolteacher, Austin Pendleton as a pawnshop owner, John Leguizamo as a busboy, Ethan Hawke as a guidance counselor, and Val Kilmer as a janitor.

None of these seasoned performers, however, can hold a candle to Noah Fleiss, a 14-year-old who gives an extraordinary performance as Joe Henry, a troubled adolescent growing up in upstate New York in the '70s. The movie gets off to a shaky start with a few glimpses of Joe as a nine-year-old (played by Peter Tambakis). But when Fleiss takes over the part, five years later in the story, he locates a still, serene center in the boy that allows him to survive a horrific array of indignities, ranging from humiliation in school to parental abuse. (A line from George Eliot is especially apt: "Resignation is the willing endurance of a pain that is not allayed.") Eventually the beleaguered Joe drifts into petty crime, with disastrous consequences. Even then, amazingly, Fleiss convinces us that on some level the kid somehow remains uncorrupted.

Whaley, who also pops up in a brief cameo, doesn't fare nearly as well with his adult actors; Kilmer, in particular, as Joe's drunken dad, gives a maddeningly erratic performance. But as a writer Whaley took a tremendous leap of empathy and created Joe from the inside out. As a director he also conceived and shot the film in ways that emphasize the boy's pain and isolation, and to his great credit, he resisted the temptation to give this grittily realistic story a Hollywood-style sentimental resolution. (Thursday, November 11, 7 p.m., Coral Ridge; 93 minutes)

The War Zone: Another Pulp Fiction alumnus, actor Tim Roth, makes his directing debut with this bleak drama, a literary adaptation every bit as intense and emotionally lacerating as last year's Affliction. The film is based on Alexander Stuart's controversial first novel, published in 1989 and adapted for the film by the author himself, who provides a scenario as stripped-down and elemental as a classic Greek tragedy.

Stuart's story is essentially a four-character play delineating the deterioration of an English family that has just relocated from London to the rural isolation of Devon, in southwest Great Britain. Just minutes into the film, the family survives a devastating accident that initially seems only to draw its members closer together and strengthen their bonds. But the family's 15-year-old son, moody and unpredictable even by adolescent standards, soon stumbles upon a secret that eventually reduces the fabric of family life to shreds.

I can't really say much more about the plot without blunting the impact of its series of increasingly shocking revelations. What's abundantly clear, however, is that Roth has an intuitive grasp of how to meld film style and content (at least with this sort of material; how he might handle, say, a romantic comedy is anyone's guess). Unlike so many actors who venture behind the camera, he's less interested in showing off than in advancing a narrative. Here he uses locations -- desolate country roads, an Albert Speer-inspired seaside bunker, the oppressively boxy house where much of the action takes place -- to reinforce the raw interactions among the characters. He makes the story as visually harsh and unforgiving as the landscape in which it takes place.

Not surprisingly for an actor of his talent, Roth also elicits uniformly fine work from a quartet of players largely unknown this side of the Atlantic. For the matriarch known only as Mum, who gives birth to the family's third child early in the movie, he's blessed with the fine-boned Tilda Swinton. Best known here for her ambitious performance in the title role of the muddled Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando, Tilton provides one of the most natural, least romanticized renderings of pregnancy and early motherhood ever put on film. Ray Winstone, hailed for his work in another actor's directorial debut, Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, easily matches her as Mum's deceptively easygoing husband. And for the pivotal roles of the story's 18-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, Roth turned to newcomers Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe, both of whom are excellent.

If there's a complaint to be leveled against this stark drama, it's that the dialogue is sometimes a little too Pinteresque for its own good, too full of pregnant pauses and portents. But in the context of a piece of filmmaking so strong, this is a minor flaw. (Saturday, November 13 [closing night], 5 and 7 p.m., Coral Ridge; 98 minutes)

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