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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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.

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.

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.

Lyle, you see, suffers from Tourette's syndrome, the mysterious neurological ailment that manifests itself in a variety of compulsive tics and twitches. He isn't subject to the outbursts of swearing often associated with Tourette's -- he went through that phase in his childhood -- but his clicks and pops and convulsive jerks are almost ever-present. (They seem to subside slightly before he goes to sleep, and all but the worst of them go into remission when he's deep in concentration on a painting or sculpture.)

This alone is mighty powerful material for a movie, and Morrow makes full use of his opportunity to portray how relentlessly such an extreme disorder can dominate someone's life. Lyle's few friends are used to his behavior, but when he ventures from his bohemian loft into the outside world, you quickly realize the horror of his situation.

The syndrome makes even the most basic activity, whether it's having a beer at a bar or attempting a dinner date, an ordeal. "I just think social interaction as a whole is overrated," insists Lyle, whose condition has forced him to put up barricades against intimacy.

And so Morrow ups the ante by having Lyle get emotionally involved with his close friend Callie (Laura Linney, in a lovely, delicate performance), who's also the girlfriend of Lyle's best friend, Mike (Craig Sheffer, in a thankless role). The complications generated among these relationships make up the bulk of the story, with the Tourette's and its complications never far in the background.

There's a twist ending that's poetically just but also feels a bit forced. Otherwise, Maze is never less than mesmerizing. (Tuesday, November 7, 1:15 and 7:15 p.m., Galleria, Fort Lauderdale; Friday, November 10, 5 p.m., Galleria; 98 minutes)

Swimming
In its finer moments, this slight drama recalls Ruby in Paradise, which played at the festival several years ago. Like that sleeper it's set in a small Southern coastal community and focuses on young characters who are unsatisfied with their lives but not quite sure what to do about it.

Unlike Ruby, however, which was built around Ashley Judd's extraordinary performance, Swimming emphasizes the unstable relationships among three women who work in the same restaurant. Think Mystic Pizza and you'll be on the right track.

The story is filtered through the perceptions of Frankie (Lauren Ambrose), a frumpy redhead who emphasizes her ugly-duckling status by wearing unflattering clothes; she's the sensitive outsider as protagonist. Frankie works in the restaurant she and her older brother have inherited, but mainly she drifts along aimlessly, cruising the boardwalk with her friend Nicola (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), who runs a piercing parlor but also works in the restaurant.

Nicola is something of a wild woman who drinks too much and flaunts her sexual availability. But her friendship with Frankie isn't as unlikely as it may first seem, and the peculiar dynamic between them helps propel the narrative. That dynamic changes dramatically, however, with the arrival of Josee (Joelle Carter), a real looker who quickly latches onto Frankie and clashes with Nicola.

The movie seems to be onto something when it shows Josee having passionless (on her part) sex with a local lifeguard. The stakes go up again when Josee displays some distinctly lesbian inclinations. Unfortunately director Robert J. Siegel loses his nerve and shifts his attention to a run-of-the-mill pseudoromance between Frankie and a shaggy drifter passing through town.

Although Swimming never quite jells, it's an agreeable showcase for three fine but very different characterizations. And for those who remember her as a promising child star in such mid-'80s movies as The Hotel New Hampshire, Mrs. Soffel, and Heaven Help Us, Jennifer Dundas Lowe (known back then as Jennie Dundas) confirms her talent. (Tuesday, November 7, 7:45 p.m., Gateway, Fort Lauderdale; Wednesday, November 8, 7:45 and 9:45 p.m., Gateway; 97 minutes)

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