Bride of the Fest That Ate South Florida

Despite its monstrous bulk, our favorite film festival stays true to its independent roots

Depending on how you look at it, the 15th Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival is more than halfway over or just about to begin: "Officially" the festival opens November 3, although there have been screenings all over South Florida for more than two weeks now.

Such incoherence may be the price of having become the longest film festival in the world. And the festival also has what must be one of the busiest schedules on record -- I counted more than 400 individual screenings in the program, not to mention nearly a dozen educational seminars and a handful of parties and other social events.

Based on what I've managed to sample, most of my long-time rules of thumb still hold up. The festival remains admirably committed to showcasing movies with gay and/or lesbian themes, including this year's standout, Straightman, as well as the lesbian-tinged Swimming and Low-Fat Elephants, both of which also fit into the festival's tradition of featuring strong female performances. And the festival continues to present documentaries and short subjects that might otherwise go unnoticed.

George Best (John Lynch) was as good with the ladies as he was with a soccer ball
George Best (John Lynch) was as good with the ladies as he was with a soccer ball

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Continues through November 12. For details call 954-760-9898.

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David Mamet's State and Main corrects the festival's previously shaky record when it comes to movies about moviemaking, although none of the dramas I took in came close to the power of such previous festival selections as last year's Tumbleweedsand The War Zone or the previous year's Affliction and Little Voice.

On the other hand, this year's lineup includes such gems as Maze and A House on a Hill, which perfectly fit the festival's theme: "A vacation from ordinary film." I can live with that.

Best
You might question the judgment of moviemakers who call a project Best, then let the marketing people add the tagline, "The best there is, the best there ever was." Are they fishing for compliments or setting themselves up for a fall?

In this case it appears to be the latter, even though the subject of this grim biographical drama is the real-life soccer star George Best, who skyrocketed to fame and fortune in the 1960s. According to the movie, Best was one of the earliest examples of the celebrity athlete, the jock as ersatz rock star -- posing for magazine spreads, endorsing products, throwing wild parties in a Playboy-style mansion, attracting hordes of screaming teenagers.

At the height of his fame, the shaggy-haired, fashionably mod Best was dubbed "El Beatle." As played by the gaunt, angular Irish actor (and coscreenwriter) John Lynch, however, he looks more like Pete Townshend, which makes it especially jarring to see him paired with Roger Daltrey, who briefly appears as Best's best friend.

In true pop-star fashion, Best lets success go to his head, and before long he's a major-league boozer, gambler, and womanizer. His awards are offset by arrests and fractured friendships.

All this is set against a backdrop of newsreel soccer footage and an overbearing musical score, and there's a sprinkling of appearances by veteran performers, ranging from Ian Bannen as the man who discovers Best to Patsy Kensit as his unhappy love interest to Stephen Fry as an architect who tells Best, "You are an ogre of beauty."

But in the end it's much ado about nothing, because Lynch, good in such films as Cal and In the Name of the Father, makes Best inscrutable. We never get a glimmer of why this successful man is so utterly miserable. Like the Irish mobster portrayed in The General, a festival selection two years ago, George Best may be charismatic, but he's also repellent. (Saturday, November 4, 7 p.m., Galleria, Fort Lauderdale; Sunday, November 5, 1 p.m., Galleria; Monday, November 6, 5 p.m., Galleria; Sunday, November 12, 5 p.m., Galleria; 102 minutes)

Straightman
If you can get past the gritty, no-budget look of this drama -- and it's sometimes a challenge to do so -- you'll be rewarded with one of the most emotionally naked and unglamorous coming-out stories ever put on film. Just direct your attention away from the sets and the lighting and focus on the writing, directing, and, above all, acting.

The picture is the work, in a tremendous leap of empathy, of two straight men. Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave wrote and produced, Berkowitz directed, and the two play the male leads.

I use the word wrote in a very loose sense, because the two Bens developed the material in workshops over a couple years, constructing characters and a framework for them without spelling everything out in detail. Their cast -- actors drawn from the Chicago theater, all making their big-screen debuts -- then helped the filmmakers flesh out the characters.

As a result the players sometimes seem to be making things up as they go along. Hence the comparisons with John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh that are already being applied to Berkowitz and Redgrave.

People who thrive on strong narrative may find this improvisatory, meandering approach maddening. But the moviemakers compensate by giving us fully imagined characters. Berkowitz plays the flashier of the two leads, David, an extroverted comedy-club manager with a robust appetite for life, whether it be food, drink, or women.

His friend Jack, played by Redgrave, is a quieter type, a soft-spoken construction worker whose orderly life is thrown into disarray when his long-time girlfriend abruptly leaves him. The two men end up sharing an apartment, and their friendship is put to the test when, in a series of small, tentative steps, Jack comes to terms with his being gay.

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