As a Screwup,

Filmmaker Lepage has practice

These reviews are part of our continuing coverage of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

The Far Side of the Moon (La face cachée de la lune) --Judging from what's on the screen, you'd be hard-pressed to guess that this French-Canadian production started out on the stage -- as a one-man show, no less. The play has been thoroughly, seamlessly reimagined in cinematic terms.

It's the work of the Quebec-born Robert Lepage, probably best-known in America as part of the acting troupe in the 1989 Canadian film Jesus of Montreal. Lepage premiered the play in his hometown in 2003 and toured with it for three years before transforming it into a screenplay. He also directed the movie and plays the lead as well as a secondary but crucial character. He clearly knows his material inside out, and it shows — this is the work of a supremely confident filmmaker.

That's in sharp contrast to the main character, Philippe, a morose graduate student in his 40s who supports himself (barely) by working as a newspaper telemarketer. He repeatedly fails at defending his doctoral dissertation before a skeptical committee and is equally inept at his job, where his habit of making personal calls creates friction with his no-nonsense supervisor.

Indeed, about the only thing Philippe does well is screwup. He has a fractious relationship with his much more successful brother, he's still bitter over a romance that ended disastrously, and he finds himself unable to come to terms with the recent death of his mother (we see her in flashback as a vivacious, charismatic woman beautifully portrayed by Anne-Marie Cadieux). In short, he's a bundle of neuroses in the mode of an early Woody Allen character, minus most of the zingy one-liners.

Lepage also plays the younger brother, André, a gay television weathercaster whose borderline narcissism sometimes comes perilously close to parody. André is outgoing and carefree, while Philippe is introverted and obsessive, and the two are also visual opposites — Philippe with his long, stringy hair, glasses, and rumpled wardrobe, André with his crisp clothes, perfectly clipped hair, and wisp of a soul patch. Lepage even manages to suggest, primarily by body language, that André is fit and well-toned, while Philippe is pasty and doughy.

As a writer and director, Lepage is especially deft at handling the material's space-race motif, which could easily have weighed down the picture. Philippe nurtures an obsession with space exploration that seeps into every aspect of his life, including his Ph.D. candidacy. He tries unsuccessfully to engineer a one-on-one meeting with a Russian cosmonaut in a hotel lounge, which leads to one of the movie's comic highlights, an increasingly testy conversation between a bewildered bartender and the drunken Philippe. And his fascination with a Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence competition to gather videos to send into space prompts him to make a home movie that speaks volumes about his personality.

According to theater reviews, Lepage was endlessly inventive in his stage production, which used puppets and other special effects. He's no less resourceful with the movie. A washing-machine window becomes a portal on a spacecraft; an umbilical cord becomes a space walker's lifeline. Some scene transitions are fluid enough to prompt a how did he do that? doubletake.

In the wrong hands, this tricky material and the even trickier stylistic treatment would probably seem too clever by half. But Lepage pulls it off with great aplomb. The Far Side of the Moon is as intelligent as it is entertaining. (In French, Russian, and English with English subtitles. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 27, at Cinema Paradiso; 105 minutes.) Michael Mills

Strike the Tent The Civil War has always made a visually stunning backdrop for filmmaking. There are the wide vistas of hillsides and hollows filled with sunshine and gun smoke, as blue- and gray-clad troops charge into near-certain death at the hands of their cousins from across the border. All of which you'll find in the period film Strike the Tent, made by the descendants of the main characters and co-directed by first-timers A. Blaine Miller and Julian Adams.

The film follows the wartime life of Robert Adams (Julian Adams), a young gentleman farmer from South Carolina who begins a romance with Eveline (Gwendolyn Edwards) on the eve of the Civil War. Robert is committed to defending his way of life, as he puts it, and eventually ends up a prisoner in the North, with the film cutting back and forth between the present and his earlier courtship with Eveline. After a bold escape, Robert finds his way to the Pennsylvania home of Eveline's grandfather, and to his surprise, Eveline is there to greet him.

Strike the Tent has the gorgeous look and feel of a grand, sweeping (and big-budget) epic. Unfortunately, there's something to be said for using proven professionals in scriptwriting and acting for such a film. Both Adams and Edwards have movie-star good looks, but their performances are flat to nonexistent, which makes it a challenge to build much empathy for their characters. There's also the promise of tension at the beginning (Eveline's a Yankee, after all) that never materializes and an end that makes you wonder at the point of it all. Both the war and the film. (For scheduled screening, call 954-525-3456, or visit www.fliff.com; 96 minutes.) — John Anderson

 
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