A Frenetic Fest, Part 2

More madcap movie mayhem from the fine folks at FLIFF

The 16th Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival swings into full gear this weekend, beginning with the official opening-night film Friday at the Parker Playhouse and continuing with an average of more than a dozen screenings a day. Without further ado here's a selection of what you can expect from the main body of the festival. Look for a final set of reviews and wrap-up commentary in next week's issue.

Fugitivas The press notes characterize this as an "Action/Drama/Road Movie," although it's one with a distinctly European sensibility. The action and violence, for instance, are less showy and superficial than they might be in a typical American action movie and more carefully integrated into a story with some substance.

That's not to say this Spanish production isn't exciting. It starts off with a bang, cutting back and forth from a prostitute and her seven-year-old daughter to a quartet of bank robbers pulling off a dizzying heist in Madrid. These seemingly disparate elements quickly come together.

Two of the robbers -- one male, one female -- panic and race off in the getaway car, leaving behind two very angry partners. The tangled complications that ensue result in the female robber's being stuck on the road with her partner's young niece, who's supposed to be delivered to her father in Andalusia, in southern Spain.

Inevitably, a bond develops between the two reluctant travel partners, although the story handily avoids any cheap sentimentality by keeping the two constantly on the run and in peril. A sort of existential dread hangs over their odyssey; the picture has something of the feel of a hyperactive Antonioni, coupling ennui with relentless movement. (Thursday, November 1, 7:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Friday, November 2, 3 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Saturday, November 3, 9:45 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 98 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)

Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?

Two weeks into the festival, we get... the "opening-night film." Go figure. But don't hold such illogic against this amiable British comedy, which has some of the cracked charm of the festival's Little Voice three years ago.

The setting is Sheffield, England, in 1977, the year John Travolta became an international icon in Saturday Night Fever. And an early sequence is a takeoff of the one in that movie in which Travolta struts down the street to the sound of the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" -- except that here the strutter is 18-year-old Vince Smith (nicely played by Michael Legge), junior legal clerk by day, aspiring disco dude by night.

The story is told from the point of view of Vince, whose comic misadventures include an unsuccessful stint as a punk rocker. He's surrounded by a group of characters as colorful as he is: his mother, played by singer-actress Lulu as an overgrown party girl; his overbearing boss, played by David Thewlis with a Sonny Bono-esque haircut; and an eccentric college professor, played by Stephen Fry, who in one sequence gives his nine-year-old daughter a hilarious sex-education lesson.

As you can see, this film boasts quite a cast, and we haven't even gotten to the title character, who is portrayed with whimsy and understatement by veteran actor Tom Courtenay. Harold is Vince's seemingly harmless father, content to sit in front of the television with his pipe. But as we eventually learn, Harold has an array of startling mental powers.

This is over-the-top material to begin with, and the movie gets almost completely out of hand before it's over. But by then it has stirred up some irresistibly outrageous fun. (Friday, November 2, 7:30 p.m., Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale; 96 minutes)

The Devil's Backbone

This unforgivingly harsh drama, set in a parched, remote outpost during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, opens with a ten-year-old boy being dropped off at an orphanage. A huge defused bomb lies lodged in the earth in the courtyard, a perpetual reminder of the unseen struggle raging in the distance.

The orphanage is similarly haunted with another ghostly presence, that of a boy who died under mysterious circumstances the day the bomb fell. The other children, who have grown uneasily accustomed to the ghost, call him "the one who sighs." Soon the new boy finds himself unwittingly unraveling the mystery of what happened to the dead child.

From this simple if strange setup emerges a story that draws in a number of compelling characters: the school's stern, war-widowed principal (played with icy resolve by Marisa Paredes, familiar from Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother); an elderly professor who provides the key to the movie's enigmatic title; and, most notably, a bitter young man who has spent the better part of his life at the orphanage (fiercely played by Iñigo Garcés, who is, to crib from an old Eagles song, "brutally handsome").

The level of violence scales almost sadistic heights before this grim, slow-moving tale reaches its bloody finale. Director Guillermo del Toro has an assured touch that blends the material's realistic and supernatural elements seamlessly, as well as a knack for using sound effects to great advantage. (Friday, November 2, 8:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Saturday, November 3, 9:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 106 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles)

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