Bride of the Fest That Ate South Florida

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

The basic material may be familiar, but the treatment of it is highly original, and Redgrave's performance is subtle and understated. Straightman is the kind of movie that hangs in your head for a few days as you sort out its implications. (Saturday, November 4, 7 p.m., Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; Sunday, November 5, 9 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 95 minutes)

A House on a Hill
The maker of this strange little movie, Chuck Workman, is best known for those compilations of film clips shown on Academy Awards telecasts. (One, Precious Images, won an Oscar and is the most widely shown short subject in the world.) He has also made documentaries, including the justly acclaimed Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, and other specialized projects such as trailers and title sequences.

With this quirky drama, Workman makes a rare foray into fiction filmmaking, with mixed results. It's the story of Harry Mayfield, an architect who, in the twilight of his career, gets a chance to resurrect a project he was forced to abandon years ago: a breathtaking hilltop house in Malibu originally designed for his own family.

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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When a well-to-do young couple commissions Mayfield to finish the house, he's forced to confront his jumbled past, including his failed marriage to an art dealer (Shirley Knight) and the death of their young son. All of this is also fodder for a documentary filmmaker (Laura San Giacomo) who is commissioned to chronicle the completion of the dream house.

There's a lot going on here, which suits Workman's temperament. He puts his formidable skills as an editor and archivist into play as he sifts through the architect's life -- like Mayfield, he's trying to reassemble something that has fragmented almost beyond salvage.

Workman also indulges in a wide array of camera tricks: wipes, split-screen effects, irises, slow motion, stop-action, framing devices. It's the kind of highly self-conscious filmmaking that would seem pretentious if Workman weren't so confident of himself.

Philip Baker Hall as the architect helps enormously. Hall is best known for portraying Richard Nixon in the play Secret Honor and in Robert Altman's screen adaptation, so he's no stranger to the sort of ego required for Mayfield, who, despite protests to the contrary, has much in common with Frank Lloyd Wright.

The movie almost collapses near the end, as if Workman suddenly ran out of ideas, but there is so much in which to revel along the way that it's easy to forgive him. (Saturday, November 4, 9 p.m., Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; 89 minutes)

Low-Fat Elephants
Until it wears out its welcome about midway through, this Australian comedy is a spirited variation on Cyrano de Bergerac, with Tessa Wells as Greta, a love-struck pastry chef who goes after the object of her affection in a roundabout way. The catch is that her would-be beloved is not only another woman but also her own roommate, Cassandra (Karen Pang).

In order to impress Cassandra, Greta courts her by way of Yuri (writer/director/producer Phillip Marzella), a presumably gay actor she hires as her stand-in. The game plan is that Yuri will wow Cassandra with flowers and affection and love poems (written, of course, by Greta) until, at some crucial point, Greta will step in and, voilà, sweep her off her feet.

The catch -- and it's a major one -- is that Yuri turns out not to be gay at all, and he and Cassandra fall for each other in a big way. And the more Greta tries to intervene, the more complications she generates.

The whole premise may sound unlikely until you consider just how irrational and farfetched love can be, which is part of the picture's flaky charm. People in love don't typically behave sensibly. There's a funny running gag that emphasizes Greta's lunacy by having her confide in an unseen and unheard therapist, and Greta herself realizes the increasing absurdity of her predicament. ("Is it possible that I am possessed by the devil?" she asks at one point, only half-jokingly.)

The movie squeaks by thanks to Wells, who's like a finer-boned version of Toni Collette of Muriel's Wedding. She humanizes the obsessed Greta, who might otherwise come across as vaguely sociopathic. She makes Greta so sympathetic, in fact, that you begin to wonder what she sees in someone as brittle and annoying as Cassandra.

Marzella's Yuri fares best not when he's with either woman but when he's hanging out with a couple of pals -- there's a loopy chemistry in their trivial banter. Still, Low-Fat Elephantscomes fully alive only when the camera is on Wells. (Sunday, November 5, 7 p.m., Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; Monday, November 6, 7 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 90 minutes)

Maze
Rob Morrow, the actor best known for his work on TV's Northern Exposure and in Robert Redford's feature Quiz Show, proves himself a quadruple threat with this romantic drama: cowriter, co-producer, director, and star. In the title role of Lyle Maze, he's a Manhattan-based artist of some renown who is about to make the transition from painting to sculpture.

Oh no, you may be thinking, not another tortured-artist story. Well, yes and no. The movie does show Lyle at work from time to time (and Morrow makes him completely convincing as an artist), and Lyle is indeed tormented, but not by what you might expect.

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