At Home and Abroad

FLIFF warms up with edgy documentaries and a journey to the Thai heart of darkness

Editor's note: The official opening of 133-film FLIFF isn't until next Friday, but the entries are already spinning. Here are reviews of some that will be shown in the next week:

Just when you thought the music world had gone the way of Britney Spears forever, a band like Betty Blowtorch came along. Raw and feral, the all-girl band rose from the ashes of the punk band Butt Trumpet and quickly made its mark on L.A.'s gritty rock scene in the late 1990s. Though major labels shied away from their explicitly crude lyrics, the band gained a hard-core following across the country while touring with the likes of Nashville Pussy, and it became known for a wild stage show that included dangerously low-tech pyrotechnics: basically, a roadie lighting roman candles on-stage.

Director Anthony Scarpa followed the band for two years, chronicling its rise and end, with the tragic death of singer Bianca Butthole, which is the basic premise of Betty Blowtorch... and Her Amazing True Life Adventures. As a rocker himself, for the bands Lifter and the Art of Safecracking, Scarpa is at home in the dank clubs and studio backrooms, where a good portion of the documentary was filmed. In other words, he's one of them. Which makes it easy for him to pull back the curtain on the band's stage persona, while the members obviously felt enough at ease to really cut loose and be themselves with him.

Living long in a happy gay relationship; at right, living short in the raucous L.A. rock scene
Living long in a happy gay relationship; at right, living short in the raucous L.A. rock scene

Details

Friday, October 17, through Sunday, November 16, at the Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale, and Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-760-9898.

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Not that they wouldn't anyway. For all their "fuck you" posturing on stage, the girls in the band are just carefree, unpretentious, and thoroughly lovable by the end. Along with interviews from rock journalists and musicians like Guns 'N Roses' Duff McKagan, who produced the band's only album, Are You Man Enough?, Scarpa creates a compelling story of these people's lives and the odyssey that was their band. But the film works because Betty Blowtorch rocks; I mean, they can really play. And the regular sprinkling in of songs is always a pleasure. Expect an uptick in Betty Blowtorch sales after this film. (Monday, November 3, 8:30 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 98 minutes) -- John Anderson


For the gay rights movement, there's no hotter topic these days than the legal right of gay marriage. Gay and lesbian partners who have been together for years, essentially living a married life, continue to be denied a number of important rights because of their status. For instance, gay couples can't adopt a child in some states, like Florida, and partners can be denied health care.

These points and more are explained in the documentary I Can't Marry You, by filmmaker Catherine Gray, narrated by Betty DeGeneres, mother of the most famous lesbian in America. Gray interviews couples from around the country with widely varying backgrounds, including several in South Florida, with the youngest couple together for ten years and the oldest for 55. She also interviews at length several legal experts, who describe the gay marriage issue in great detail.

But listening to a lawyer's monotone about legal points is about as thrilling as a visit to the dentist. So only the truly motivated could concentrate on his entire spiel. That's one of the flaws of the film. Instead of talking to lawyers, Gray's points would have been better served if she had interviewed couples who had gone through some real hardship due to the laws, even lives that have been ruined. Instead, the couples she talks to all seem to be happy, well-adjusted, and fulfilled people. Fine for her other somewhat-simplistic point, that gays have normal lives too. And while all of the couples admit that they would get married if they had the chance, you get the sense that it's not a burning issue for them, that they'll go on being reasonably happy contented people whatever the law. Still, Gray shows that it is a silly law that needs changing. (Monday, November 3, 7:30 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 57 minutes) -- John Anderson


A journey of a thousand miles, they say, begins with a single step. Or in the case of British backpacker Adam (Stuart Laing), protagonist in the low-budget feature Butterfly Man, all it takes is a flight from London to Bangkok, Thailand. Which is part of why he suddenly feels so disjointed, arriving in Thailand with his girlfriend and the intention of smoothing out their tense relationship only to break up on the first night.

From there, it's a traveler's tale that's part narrative in the Midnight Express vein, albeit a far tamer version, and part travelogue of Thailand's unseemly flesh fair as Adam scuttles off to tropical beaches on the southern islands. He wanders through markets at night with their bright lights, techno thumping, and young prostitutes vying for his attention, and we feel aghast at the exploitation -- or we're supposed to. Happening upon a quiet beach bar, Adam befriends a dubious character in Irish ex-pat Joey (Francis Magee), who takes the young Brit to his house of Thai massage and introduces him to the lovely Em (Mamee Nakprasitte). Love blooms between Em and Adam, who later reluctantly gets ensnared in Joey's shady business dealings.

Shot on video, director Kaprice Kea attempts through his low-budget creativity to give the film immediacy, as though you're watching through the lens of a fellow traveler, complete with rolling timer in the bottom frame. It's effective in showing the grittier scenes of prostitute bars as Adam strolls through the sordid nightlife. But the few scenes that take place in the beautiful countryside are pointless on grainy video. The acting lacks the sparkle of real actors and the innocence and integrity of amateurs, as dramatic scenes become overwrought. (Friday, November 7, 3 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 94 minutes) -- John Anderson


As it did last year with the austerely beautiful drama Daughters of the Sun, which chronicled the plight of an Iranian girl essentially sold into slavery to earn money for her impoverished family, the festival seems determined to make us confront our assumptions about such global hot spots as Iran. Mystic Iran: The Unseen World, a short but powerful documentary -- produced, cowritten, directed, and edited by Iranian-American filmmaker Aryana Farshad -- challenges the Western world's tendency to lump Iran in with the rest of the Islamic world without regard to its diversity.

Farshad, who was born in Iran, educated in France, and now lives in the United States, moves beyond the familiar ayatollahs to uncover an array of rich religious traditions in her native land. Spirituality, she asserts, is the basis of the country's survival, and so she returns to her homeland after two decades away from it to explore some of those traditions. She starts in Tehran, where she contrasts Islam's controversial dress code for women with the increasing role they play in creative professions, then moves into other parts of the country. After a visit to the tomb of a Muslim saint, she touches on the influences of Zarathustra, Moses, and Jesus, all of whom, she notes, predated Mohammed, and there's an especially mesmerizing look at the mystical rites of Kurdish dervishes whose feverish chanting and dancing take them to an elevated state of religious consciousness. Despite the grainy imagery and scratchy sound, the material is often fascinating, although it's also the sort of thing you might run across on any number of cable TV networks. (Saturday, November 8, 8 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 52 minutes) -- Michael Mills

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