A Frenetic Fest, Part 3

The curtain closes with class on the area's top film showcase

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has a consistent track record when it comes to three genres: documentaries, gay-themed pictures, and movies with strong female performances.

This year, in the festival's 16th season, my rules of thumb mostly hold up. I managed to see only two documentaries, Drive-In Movie Memories and Soul Bowl; despite stylistic flaws, both describe fascinating subjects. The Fluffer, set in the gay adult film business, is likewise uneven but well worth seeing, and The Perfect Son addresses gay concerns with sensitivity. A handful of other features include outstanding work from both leading and supporting actresses.

Although I enjoyed the official opening-night film, the whimsical British comedy Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?, I at first doubted that the festival would provide anything with the dramatic impact of, say, Affliction, The War Zone, or Tumbleweeds, all of which played a few years ago.

I was wrong. The closing-night film, Lantana, is an extraordinarily nuanced drama from Australia that explores the fragility of human relationships as well as various manifestations of grief. It ends the festival on a somber but distinctly classy note.

Morning

Not even the presence of the lovely Annabeth Gish can lift this dreary drama out of the doldrums. And it hardly helps that the movie's one genuinely appealing character -- a musician played by J.R. Richards -- disappears early.

The musician goes to New York to visit an old friend, appallingly played by Kieran Mulroney, who has made it big in the advertising business. The buddies clash repeatedly, and finally the musician vanishes with the ad man's beloved Toyota Celica. (Would anyone really be so enamored of such a car?)

The rest of this nonsense includes a road trip to North Carolina in search of the missing friend and car, with a stolen corpse thrown in for good measure. Tess Harper and Pat Hingle turn up in thankless roles as the musician's mother and grandfather. (Thursday, November 8, 5:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Saturday, November 10, 1:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 89 minutes)

The Zookeeper

An unnamed Eastern European country in the grips of a brutal civil war is the setting for this mostly bleak drama, starring Sam Neill as a cynical zookeeper who volunteers to stay behind with the animals when the rest of the city is evacuated. It's something of a departure for Neill, best-known for Jurassic Park, but he grows into the part as the story progresses.

The movie seems meant as a commentary on, or even an indictment of, the sort of bureaucratic totalitarianism that dominated the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. (The zookeeper was once a civil servant under such a regime and isn't especially happy to have lost his status.) But the material is so generic that its impact is muffled -- it ends up seeming vague rather than timeless.

What personalizes the story is a subplot involving a little boy torn from his parents during the strife and later reunited with his mother. His appearances chillingly emphasize the effects of war on children.

There's also an abundance of atmosphere; the ever-present sounds of bombs and gunfire in the distance are eerily juxtaposed against the sounds of the zoo animals going through their daily routines as the war draws ever closer. (Thursday, November 8, 7:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Friday, November 9, 9:15 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Sunday, November 11, 5:15 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 100 minutes)

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

This ambitious French-Australian-Spanish co-production is just the kind of picture you're likely to find only at a film festival. It stars Richard Dreyfuss as Antonio Bolivar, a 60-year-old Hispanic man who has lived roughly 40 years of his life in a remote region of the Amazon rain forest -- which tells you right off that we're not dealing with commercial Hollywood material.

Dreyfuss fares admirably despite his occasionally shaky accent. He's backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Hugo Weaving as a laconic dentist who stops in the village twice a year to inflict his peculiar brand of treatment on the locals; Timothy Spall as the town's slovenly, ill-tempered mayor; and Cathy Tyson, gorgeous as ever, as a servant girl who eventually becomes involved with Bolivar.

The title refers to the books Bolivar pores through in the jungle hut he built for himself. He reads aloud, supplying his own sometimes bewildered commentary as he goes along, so that we're able to piece together his biography (numerous flashbacks are also included).

The plot, which is propelled by a jaguar that starts attacking villagers after her cubs are poached, evolves into a variation on Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, with Bolivar confronting both the animal and his fears. The going gets heavy here and there, but this slow, stately drama is mostly a winner. (Friday, November 9, 7:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Saturday, November 10, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; Sunday, November 11, 5 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 110 minutes)

Lantana

The festival program characterizes this Australian drama as "a different kind of thriller," which it certainly is, and as "Hitchcockian," which it isn't quite. In fact, until a major character -- a psychiatrist and author played by Barbara Hershey -- mysteriously disappears more than halfway into the story, it's really less thriller and more character study.

And what characters they are: an angry, brooding cop (Anthony LaPaglia) caught up in a joyless affair with a woman (Rachael Blake) central to solving the mystery; the cop's unhappy wife (Kerry Armstrong), who's secretly in therapy with the shrink; another patient (Peter Phelps), a gay man seeing a married man; and the psychiatrist's dour husband (Geoffrey Rush).

Several other characters come into play, including the estranged husband of Blake's character and the couple's neighbors, a young nurse and her husband, who's implicated in the psychiatrist's disappearance. The lives of these characters grow as tangled as the plants of the title, spiky flowering weeds that grow rampantly in parts of Australia. The people are rarely what they seem, and almost everything they say is fraught with implications and multiple meanings.

LaPaglia, Hershey, and Rush give outstanding performances, and the lesser-known Australian players contribute equally stellar work. This is only the second feature from Aussie director Ray Lawrence, and he handles the material -- based, amazingly, on a play by screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Speaking in Tongues) -- with a remarkably assured touch. (Saturday, November 10, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Sunday, November 11, 5:30 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront; 120 minutes)

Soul Bowl

If you still have doubts that MTV has forever dramatically changed the face of American moviemaking, look no further than this locally made documentary about the longstanding rivalry between two predominantly black Broward County high school football teams.

All the hallmarks of the "MTV style" are here: jittery, hand-held camera work; choppy, frenetic editing; abrupt shifts between color and black and white; seemingly arbitrary special effects; and blaring snippets of music mixed with sometimes-incomprehensible speech.

It's too bad the filmmakers got so caught up in stylistics, because they have a good story and a wealth of regional history at their disposal. If you can get past the picture's indulgences, there are some great moments (and some great characters).

The movie is anchored by the 1999 Soul Bowl match at Lockhart Stadium between Fort Lauderdale's Dillard Panthers and Pompano Beach's Blanche Ely Tigers. Included are interviews with players, coaches, local residents, family members, classmates, principals just about anyone who happens to get within camera range.

The inevitable benchmark for such sports documentaries is Hoop Dreams, the outstanding 1994 film that follows two young Chicago black men as they pursue basketball stardom. Although much more conservative and traditional in style and technique, it's also more thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying. Soul Bowl could use a few pages from its playbook. (Sunday, November 11, 3 p.m., Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale; 112 minutes)

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